Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Israel

Torture Part Three

A shorter version of this article appeared on Page 5 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday February 3 2015.

Colman's Column3


Lawlessness was the law. Judge Anwar Nuseibeh maintained that lynching was less heinous than British repression because lynching was at least not sanctioned by law.


The British Mandate in Palestine

In previous articles, I have written that Israel was among the nations that learned from Britain about torture techniques. Britain accepted the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in 1922 and endeavoured to suppress the Arab revolt with two army divisions supporting the civil authority. By the 1930s, Imperial policy was to rule out full martial law in situations of “sub-wars” but after the Arab capture of the Old City of Jerusalem in October 1938, the army effectively took over policing from the civil authority. The army and not the civil High Commissioner had the upper hand. Thousands of Arabs were held in administrative detention, without trial, and without proper sanitation, in overcrowded prison camps.


Ireland in Palestine

Israeli historian Tom Segev, in his book One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, has a chapter entitled “Ireland in Palestine”. Segev describes how Irish born Sir Charles Tegart ruled Palestine with the help of the Royal Ulster Rifles and former Black and Tans. Tegart had a security fence erected along the northern border to prevent the infiltration of terrorists. He built 62 police fortresses, which became known as “Tegart forts”, around the country and set up concrete guard posts along the roads.


Sir Charles Augustus Tegart, KCIE, KPM (born 1881, died 1946) was a colonial police officer in India and Palestine, who was praised for his industry and efficiency. He was born in what Ulster Loyalists call Londonderry, but Irish Republicans call Derry, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Rev. Joseph Poulter Tegart of Dunboyne, County Meath. He was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen and briefly at Trinity College, Dublin – Royal and Trinity! A Jewish official described him as a tall Irishman, old and gaunt with white locks crowning his head. His face was etched with lines and he had a long nose like the beak of a hawk.


The governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, joked that attempts to assassinate Tegart were misguided, since he was ‘an Irishman’ who ‘for all we know may be a Sinn Féiner at heart. He is the last man, therefore, to be deficient in sympathy with the cause of Indian nationalism’. Another speaker praised Tegart by saying, ‘I always think an Irishman is specially suited to be a policeman. Being by instinct “agin the government” he knows exactly what people who want to make trouble feel like and is able to forestall their action’.

Annie Besant was a stern critic of Tegart accusing him of physically mistreating prisoners in Bengal. A commission appointed by the government of Bengal ruled in favour of Tegart.
Even fellow officers admitted his methods were “unconventional and dare-devil” and that he was sometimes guilty of the ‘”circumvention of law and procedure to achieve results”.

In 1938, another Irishman, Major General Bernard Montgomery, wanted to take control over the whole of Palestine. “Monty” brought a haughty simplicity to his task. The Arabs were “gangs of professional bandits” and he gave his men simple orders on how to deal with them: kill them.


Tegart – Imperial Policeman at Large.

Tegart served in the Calcutta Police for thirty years from 1901. He arrived in Palestine in December 1937 with the remit of advising the Inspector General on matters of security in relation to the Arab revolt. Tegart imported Dobermans from South Africa and set up “Arab Investigation Centres”. A special centre in Jerusalem taught interrogators how to torture. One such centre in a Jewish quarter of West Jerusalem was closed only after Edward Keith-Roach, the governor of Jerusalem, complained to the High Commissioner. Keith-Roach  argued that “questionable practises” were counter-productive both in terms of the information gathered and the effect on local people’s confidence in the police.

Black and Tans

Britain transferred the notion of collective responsibility to Palestine from the war in Ireland. The Palestine police recruited many of the actual individuals who persecuted Irish citizens and set them to persecute Palestinians. Many recruits to the Palestine police were ex-“Black and Tans” and “Auxiliaries” from the Irish War of Independence (1919-21). These special forces of Temporary Constables (usually referred under the general title of “Black and Tans”) recruited to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War. Thousands, many of them British World War I veterans, answered the British government’s call for recruits. The Black and Tans became infamous for their attacks on civilians and civilian property.


The late Lord Longford wrote of Tans torturing captured republicans, “cutting out the tongue of one, the nose of another, the heart of another and battering in the skull of a fourth”. Others testified to being beaten under jets of freezing water.

Irish historian Professor Roy Foster wrote of the Tans: “They behaved more like independent mercenaries; their brutal regime followed the IRA’s policy of killing policemen, and was taken by many to vindicate it.”They disregarded all normal policing procedures, and committed almost casual murders. A British Labour Party commission reported that it felt feelings of shame at witnessing the “insolent swagger” of the Tans, whom they described as “rough, brutal, abusive and distinctly the worse for liquor”. Another observer reported: “They had neither religion nor morals, they used foul language, they had the old soldier’s talent for dodging and scrounging, called the Irish ‘natives’, associated with low company, stole from each other, sneered at the customs of the country and drank to excess.”

In the summer of 1920, the Black and Tans burned and sacked many small towns and villages in Ireland, as reprisals for killings by the IRA. They summarily executed civilians, including a Catholic priest. On the night of 11 December 1920, K Company of the Auxiliaries burnt down the centre of Cork City, destroying more than 300 buildings in the city centre and afterwards proudly pinned pieces of burnt cork to their caps. This event horrified even ardent Irish supporters of the Crown. The violent tactics of the Tans encouraged the Irish public to increase their covert support of the IRA.

Mahatma Gandhi said of a  British peace offer: “It is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else”.

Policing Palestine


The Anglican Archdeacon in Jerusalem wrote to his secretary.”For a time I was seriously troubled at the “Black and Tan” methods of the police, of which I had overwhelming evidence”. An Anglican chaplain in Haifa also wrote to the Lord Bishop in Jerusalem, in December 1937 about an incident he witnessed in which a suspect whose teeth were already knocked out before he was brought into the station was given another brutal beating. The Anglican Archdeacon in Palestine believed police abuses were the cause of the violence rather than a response to it.

In Palestine, in 1924-25, the British had effectively formalised the principle of reprisals in the Collective Responsibility and Punishment Ordinances, building on the idea that Palestinian village life was a collective “social system based on mutual protection rather than justice”. The 1929 manual was precise on how soldiers should conduct themselves, forbidding, for instance, stealing from and mistreatment of civilians. However, it also provided a legal framework for shooting rioters and allowed for “collective punishment”’ and “retribution”. Neither the 1929 volume nor the subsequent 1934 and 1937 updates provided any concrete definition for what constituted collective punishment. The law stated, “The existence of an armed insurrection would justify the use of any degree of force necessary effectually to meet and cope with the insurrection”.


Britain classified the Arab revolt as an internal insurrection and not an international war. These were criminals not soldiers. The British were careful to use the courts and the civil law modified by military necessity – the death penalty for possessing a firearm, for example. Military courts acted swiftly and prisoners were hanged quickly after going through some charade of legal process.


Soldiers had little to fear from disciplinary action in relation to theft, brutality and assault. Historian Matthew Hughes, after extensive research, found only one successful prosecution of servicemen in Palestine – that of four British police officers who blatantly executed an Arab prisoner in the street in October 1938.


Torture Methods

According to Segev, under the Tegart regime, suspects underwent brutal questioning methods including the Turkish practice of falaka– hitting prisoners with a cane on the soles of their feet and on their genitals. Although this is attributed to the Turks, it is similar to the practice known by the Italian name bastinado. In former centuries, it was also referred to as Sohlenstreich (sole stroke). The Chinese term is jiao xing.

In Bailing with a Teaspoon, Jerusalem police chief Douglas V Duff described the “water can” method of interrogation that did not leave the marks that beatings would.  The police held the suspect down on his back with his head clamped between two cushions and trickled water into his nostrils from a coffee pot. This method was applied to Jews as well as Arabs. Mordechai Pechko, a member of the militant Zionist group Irgun told how he had been tortured in this way.

Prisoners ran the gauntlet between two lines of men with pick axes, bayonets, rifles and tent pegs.  “Any that died they went into the other meat wagon and they were dumped at one of the villages on the outside.”An eyewitness recalled a “lad’s eye was hanging down on his lip, on his cheek.” Arthur Lane, a soldier from Manchester told how soldiers, to deter attacks,  would tie Arab hostages to the bonnets of lorries, or put them on the front of moving trains. Those who tried to run away  would be shot. On the lorries, some soldiers would brake hard at the end of a journey and then casually drive over the hostage, killing or maiming him.

Some Arab prisoners jumped to their deaths from high windows to escape their captors. Some had their testicles tied with cord; others were beaten with strips of wood with nails in; some had wire tightened around their big toes. “Interrogators” pulled out fingernails and hair was torn from faces and heads.  Red-hot skewers, electric shocks, boiling oil and intoxicants were used on detainees. Prisoners were sodomised. There were mock executions.

Collective Punishment


The Rt Rev. WH Stewart, the Anglican Archdeacon of Jerusalem and, from 1938, Chaplain to the Palestine Police and so no enemy of the force, wrote of dark deeds in rural areas of Palestine. A common tactic was “punitive demolition”. The largest single act of destruction came on 16 June 1936 in the Arab city of Jaffa when the British blew up between 220 and 240 buildings, making 6,000 Palestinians destitute and homeless.


In Nablus in August 1938, almost 5,000 men were held in a cage for two days and interrogated. On September 6 1938, a land mine near Al Bassa killed four soldiers from the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR). The RUR and Royal Engineers rounded up villagers shooting some who tried to escape, beating others with sticks and rifle butts. They took one hundred villagers to a nearby military base, where four men who were  forced to kneel naked on cacti and thorns. Eight soldiers set about beating them “without pity” in front of the group. Pieces of flesh “flew from their bodies” and the victims fainted. Other villagers were put onto a bus, which was forced to drive over a land mine laid by the soldiers, destroying the bus and killing many of the occupants. The village’s inhabitants were then forced to dig a pit and throw all the bodies into it.


Harry Arrigonie, a British Palestine policeman at   Al Bassa at the time, recalled grisly photographs, taken by British Constable Ricke, present at the incident of the maimed bodies,. A senior British Palestine police office, Raymond Caflferata, wrote to his wife, “You remember reading of an Arab bus blown up on the frontier road just after just  after Paddy [a slang term for the Irish] was killed. Well the Ulsters did it—a 42-seater full of Arabs and an RE [Royal Engineers] Sgt [Sergeant] blew the mine. Since that day not a single mine has been laid on that”.


A major recalled with “enormous pride” how, in November 1938, the army set up fake executions for villagers in Halhul, in the hope of getting them to hand over weapons. In July 1939, Halhul was the site of an atrocity committed by the Black Watch Regiment. All the men in the village were imprisoned in a wire cage in the sun with little water. After 48 hours, most of the men were very ill and eleven old men died. One villager was driven by thirst to falsely claim to have hidden a gun down a well. The British killed him when he failed to retrieve it.


An Arab whose father died at Halhul claimed that between eleven and fourteen men died after two weeks in the sun with no food and water. He recalled electric generators/floodlights/heaters running all night to increase the detainees’ privations, some being so hungry that they ate dirt. A woman also recalled how the soldiers beat them and threw away food that the women brought for the captive men


High Commissioner Sir Harold MacMichael made the deaths sound like an unfortunate industrial accident, “a combination of unfortunate circumstances”. No one had killed the villagers deliberately, it was not an “atrocity”. Nevertheless, the British government did compensate the families.


Systemic and Systematic

According to official British figures covering the whole Arab revolt, the army and police killed more than 2,000 Arabs in combat, 108 were hanged, and 961 died because of “gang and terrorist activities”. Over ten percent of the adult male Palestinian Arab population between 20 and 60 was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled.

British district commissioners expressed themselves with what Segev calls a “peculiar blend of discipline and pedagogy”. “Some officers sound like Scout leaders improving their flock. They always sought to preserve an appearance of ‘fairness’.” The authorities claimed that abuse was not in keeping with the character of the British soldier. There can be little doubt that British brutality in Palestine was both systematic and systemic. Similar techniques were used in the British colonies and have been used recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The authorities did little to curb the excesses of individuals and groups of soldiers and police who enjoyed inflicting pain on Arabs. I will deal with the theme of complicity next week. I recommend to any readers interested in the topic Tom Segev’s well-written and readable book. Much of the detail about specific incidents of brutality come from a paper by Matthew Hughes entitled The Banality of Brutality. English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507. Hughes provides copious citations, not just from Arab victims, but also from the perpetrators who boasted about their own brutality.

According to Matthew Hughes: “The authorities (re)constructed the law to give soldiers’ actions legality. The British had to balance what was lawful, what was morally right, and what worked, and these were not compatible. The regulations in force after 1936 made, as a pro-Arab British resident of Haifa wrote, ‘lawful things which otherwise would be unlawful’. Lawlessness was the law.”


Next week I will look at Hannah Arendt’s ideas about complicity and the banality of evil. Hughes wrote about the mind-set of the British soldier in Palestine: “Servicemen were guided by a legal system that meant that they could accept the premises of their government that allowed for brutal actions, and they could do so with all the energy of good bureaucrats obeying orders—hence the phrase ‘banality of brutality’ in the title to this article, a tilt to Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann.”



Salem’s Lot

A version of this article was published in the print edition of Lakbima News on Sunday 25 September. Unfortunately, it does not appear on the online edition even though it is listed in the Lakbima News contents.

Why does the Salem News hate Sri Lanka so much? The Salem News website carries ads saying “Check the label. Boycott Sri Lanka”.


Oregon is a beautiful place. I spent happy times there.

US state capitals can be surprising. You would expect Portland to be the capital of Oregon – it has a cosmopolitan feel to it. Culture abounds, the great Powell’s bookshop – although there did seem to be a lot of drunken Native Americans in the gutters when I was there. If you felt a bit clever you might guess Eugene to be the Oregon state capital. But no, the capital of Oregon is Salem, the county seat of Marion County, population 154,637. They have two universities, Willamette and Corban. Two famous people came from Salem. The great guitarist John Fahey was known for his coarseness, aloof demeanour, and dry humour – but hell he could play guitar. Carmella Bing is known for- well, I’m not sure. She is described as a “pornographic actress”. I know nothing of such things.

You would have thought Salem News  would be mainly interested in goings-on in the state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. They claim: “Serving the community in very real terms, is the nation’s only truly independent high traffic news Website.”  They have global, rather than local, ambitions.

Salem News’s Global Mission

“ is the premiere Independent Online Newsgroup in the United States. is setting the standard for the future of news.



Salem News boasts 96 writers in 20 countries. It is somewhat difficult to negotiate the rather messy site – almost as bad as Lakbima News. One of the contributors is Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli jazzman, novelist, and activist whose musical work I greatly admire (he used to play with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Robert Wyatt described him as a genius.)

Embedded – in Bed with Ronald McDonald

The editor of Salem News is Tim King, “a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as’s Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.” When he set off to be  embedded with the 41st Combat Brigade of the Oregon National Guard in Kabul,  Salem News called for local businesses to sponsor his trip. “McDonalds Restaurants of Salem provided $1,100 toward the trip to Afghanistan. We hardly know how to thank them enough, but we know this is one organization that sees the value of bringing the stories of our Oregon soldiers home.”

It is somewhat bizarre that a libertarian news outlet should be grovelling in this manner to a bastion of global capitalism. I  am confident that Tim would have  condemned US war crimes that he witnessed but wonder if he has queasy feeling of complicity from the very fact of being embedded with good old boys from Oregon who are slaughtering Afghan civilians under the sponsorship of Ronald McDonald..

US War Crimes

Tim  certainly criticised the USA in an article about WikiLeaks revelations of an Apache helicopter attack on a group of unarmed Iraqi civilian journalists that showed the U.S. Army “absolutely decimating a group of eight, with apparent enthusiasm, and a desire to lay waste to the people on the ground. The helicopter crew continually asked for permission to attack the people, who were in no way acting a like a military force. The journalists had no reason to suspect that an American helicopter would actually attack and leave them all dead. The Apache crew fired at the wounded and chuckled over the results, while insulting the dead as they lay on the ground. I don’t say this often, but the government of the United States of America is as corrupt and wrong as any that has ever existed, whether Americans themselves can appreciate that or not. We have broken the world in ways that can never be mended and when we aren’t doing it militarily, we are behind environmental devastation, economic depression; you name it. Capitalism as a concept has run a bad course and western people leading sheltered lives have no idea what on earth they have been paying for. Thanks to groups like this, the truth does come forward. The importance of that can never be underestimated.”


King  came under criticism for Salem News’s line on Israel: “Reading Tim King’s response, it becomes clear, however, that editorial standards are somewhat confused at the Salem News.” He responded vigorously: “I guess taking other people’s land leads to endless problems, and that is the story of Israel. I view it all as a huge entitlement problem.”

Loose Talk Costs Lives

I am not going to argue that the Salem News is an apologist for the US government. I am not going to argue that Sri Lanka should not be criticised. However, one obvious flaw in the Salem News line is its somewhat loose use of the English language. You will note that in his piece on the killing of journalists in Iraq he wrote: “the U.S. Army absolutely decimating a group of eight”. “Decimate” used to mean “to select by lot and kill every tenth man”. How is that possible with a group of eight? Was the death toll really 0.8 people? In these decadent times the word decimate has become devalued. Because it sounds similar it has come to mean devastated or even mildly depressed.

Language is an organic thing, meanings change,  but I do get a bit “decimated” myself when the currency gets debased. Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.


“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.” Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean?

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent coined the term. Genocide is generally defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race?

At the end of the war, David Begg of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions managed to find the time in his busy schedule of dealing with the disappearance of the Irish economy down the toilet – redundancies, and pay and benefit cuts for his members – to urge the then Irish Foreign Minister, Mícheál Martin (he has since been consigned to the toilet) , to apply sanctions to faraway Sri Lanka as a protest against “genocide” and “concentration camps”. Begg’s letters seemed to suggest that he thought that all Sri Lankan Tamils had been confined to a narrow strip of beach to be shelled by government troops and then herded into extermination camps. This suggests a certain ignorance about Sri Lanka’s history and of the current situation. Trinity College, Dublin hosted a two-day hearing by the Permanent People’s Tribunal which delivered the judgement that the Sri Lanka government was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal was further pondering the issue of genocide.

Genocide is a  word that Salem News uses a lot in relation to Sri Lanka.

“Our report on Sri Lanka’s genocide of the Tamil people and war crimes against Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam (LTTE), came at a time when the wagons of the Sri Lankan government are tilting over on their sides.”

Again this is an example of the English language being abused. What does  it mean? You notice that they are not talking about crimes against innocent Tamil civilians but crimes against the LTTE.

Has this been happening in Sri Lanka? Has there been a systematic plan to eradicate the Tamil race? As P{resident Rajapaksa said, why would he be providing camps, whatever the shortcomings of the IDP camps,  with food, health care, education, banks (with ATMs) if his plan was to exterminate the Tamil race in Sri Lanka?

Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?

Salem News says: “It carries with it a potential to reveal the truth about the Tamil people and their tragedy in seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government. Interestingly, and importantly, the Tamil people represent different nationalities and religions; they are diverse and not easily categorized. They have experienced grave suffering as a result of their ambitions to seek political independence in Sri Lanka since 1983, the year the 16-year long Civil War began.”

There is a certain element of tin ear about this. “Seeking independence from the Sri Lankan government” is not a usual formulation neither is “since the 16-year long Civil War began”. It was more than 16 years. Civil war may not be an accurate description.

Freedom  fighters have often been described as terrorists. Salem News says: “This is used by the Israelis against the Palestinians they displace; the Americans describe Arab freedom fighters trying to repel an occupation that has claimed over a million civilians on their soil with this word; it is the term China uses when describing Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs seeking equal rights, and the list goes on. It is high time we stop describing those who fight for human freedom; against military occupations that violate international law, with this ugly, branding word.”

The LTTE were not the same as the oppressed Palestinians. Tamils live all over Sri Lanka. Except in the areas controlled by the LTTE, they had rights and freedom. Tamils held  positions of influence. The Sri Lankan army was the legitimate force of a democratically elected government.

According to Salem News: “The story of the Tamil Tigers LTTE may the most overblown in the usage of the word ‘terrorism‘ ever, and that is really saying something.” Again not very elegant English. I do not need to spell out to Sri Lankan readers that the LTTE were really terrorists.

I wonder how many members of the Tamil diaspora are providing funding for Salem News. There are certainly Tamils being offered up for marriage in Oregon.

“Preeti is sensitive, broad-minded and an outgoing individual. She has a passion for travel and enjoys listening to music. She likes hiking and has also completed 2 half marathons. She is a cheerful caring person who enjoys being surrounded by her family and friends. She has fantastic appreciation for art, culture, people and has a positive outlook towards life.”

I advise Lakbima News readers to set up a Google alert to find out what Salem News is saying about us. I advise Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Washington to comment on Salem News biased coverage of the country he represents.

Anti-Semitism and Critical Thinking

Some time ago, I wrote a post on Open Salon which used the topic of Anti-Semitism to examine various facets of critical thinking. Recent exchanges with Ajit Randeniya prompted me to revisit it.

Let me emphasise:

  • I am not an anti-Semite
  • I am not a racist
  • I have nowhere questioned the right of the state of Israel to exist
  • I have nowhere condoned the actions of the PLO, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, IRA, UDA, LTTE, FARC or any other terrorist organisation you can think of.

There were  many lengthy comments on my post, many of them off-topic and many of them angry. There was a lot of to and fro, a lot of tit for tat and the main point got lost along the way.

My main purpose was to highlight  certain tendencies I had noticed during the nearly two years that I had been blogging on OS (I served almost three years before giving up). These tendencies were brought out particularly by a debate on anti-Semitism.

The particular issue was whether criticism of Israel constituted anti-Semitism. My interlocutor, whom I will here call K,  seemed to be saying that it was possible to  criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite. However, the upshot was a third party, DL,   called me an anti-Semite merely for using the word “sneakily” about K’s shift of ground in his argument, and an Israeli citizen  called me a hate-monger for trying to conduct a rational conversation.

Tu Quoque- the Companions in Guilt Ploy

“Don’t look at me–look at them. It reduces the debate to schoolchildren in the yard pointing fingers at each other. It is childish and self-destructive.”

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

K says that he does not think criticism of Israel by itself constitutes anti-Semitism and then  goes on to widen the definition of anti-Semitism. You don’t qualify as an anti-Semite purely for criticising Israel but you do qualify if you fail to state strongly that others, particularly Arabs and  Muslims, are as bad as Israel and probably much worse.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims who just love to kill innocent children.

K said: “I do not believe that anyone who thinks that walking into a pizza parlor with a bomb, noticing that half the people in the pizza parlor are kids and detonating the bomb anyway should be condoned under ANY circumstances has any moral authority. I will not treat such a person’s views of right and wrong as having any validity until such time as they change their view on this. What anyone else does is beside the point – this action is intrinsically always wrong on its own. Period. I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.”

That is not terribly well-expressed  or lucid  but I think it means that because Palestinians blow up innocent children in  pizza parlors they have no moral authority. Notice he does not say the particular Palestinians who set off the bombs. He says Palestinians which implies that all Palestinians lack moral authority. I suspect that the moral condemnation is extended to include those who do not condemn the action. Does “moral authority” refer to the bombers or those who condone their actions or fail to condemn? The phrase is dangling somewhat at the end of the sentence. “What anyone else does is beside the point” – what does that mean? I’m stumped!

“I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.” Does that mean that the bombers have allowed their enemy – Israel- to determine their conduct? Is K condemning the bombers because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.

My meta-intention was to deal with an aspect of blogging.  (It also happens in ‘real-life’.) Before I started blogging, I used to read in the Guardian Review  a weekly summary of what was going on in  the literary blogs. I was astounded to read one self-important blogger  pompously stating: “I haven’t read X’s latest book but what seems to me to be the crucial issue is…” This seemed to be saying that whatever time, effort, imagination  and literary skill poor old  X had put into his latest tome, it paled into insignificance beside the uninformed opinions of some nonentity of a blogger.

This post came out of a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises. I have encountered similar tactics in relation to my posts on Sri Lanka. Someone with “Progressive” in his blog name  said that he did not know much about Sri Lanka but it seemed to him that… and proceeded to accuse me of being bigoted against Tamils (while displaying his ignorance of the reality of the situation for Tamils, a subject on which I am an expert). In his view, the fact that I lived in Sri Lanka was not relevant because he believed the Sri Lanka government controlled information.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

I quoted the Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”

Leaps of logic

My chief interlocutor, K,  was a decent man with whom I got on well.  I thought him misguided in his arguments about Israel. He persistently claimed that he himself is critical of many aspects of Israeli government policy and of government actions. He claims that he has no objection to people criticizing Israel and that such criticism does not, in his view, constitute anti-Semitism.

If we unpack his actual words he was saying something quite different.

K said: “For most of my life, I drew a sharp distinction between antisemitism and antizionism. Over time, however, my opinion has changed as a result of a litmus test I now use.”

“If your standards for how Israel should behave are substantially different from your standards for how other nations should behave, chances are that you’re antisemitic.”

I don’t think he really means a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He seems actually to be talking about a distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

My objection to his litmus test is that he gives permission to criticize Israel only if one criticizes other culprits.

“Because there’s only one factor that really differentiates the Israelis from everyone else and we all know what it is.”

I take it that he means that Israel is Jewish and anti-Semites hate Jews therefore those who criticize Israel are anti-Semitic because it is a given that they will not criticize other  regimes.

Although he denies it (and perhaps he does not realize what he is doing) he is still saying that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism.

Israel’s right to exist

DL (with whom I got on well in other contexts) said: “The topic, as Padraig Colman framed it, is the meta-debate. His launching point, you’ll recall, is his disagreement with K as to the boundary between antisemitism and antizionism. That isn’t about Israel’s conduct; that’s about responses to Israel’s conduct.”

Another problem that occurs in discussions like this is people make false assumptions about their interlocutors. This was not a disagreement about the boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  That was not my point at all! That is a completely different discussion.

At one point, K said: “I make the connection and state that antizionism under those circumstances is antisemitism by another name.“

People often talk of a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as if the former is vile but the latter  is acceptable. I don’t think DL would approve  if I denied being anti-Semitic but proudly admitted being anti-Zionist. Wouldn’t being anti-Zionist mean that I did not recognize Israel’s right to exist? Wouldn’t  that put  me in the same box as Iran?


Israel uses Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah as justification for its own violent actions. Does anyone remember Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Palmach? These groups were official, semi-official and unofficial paramilitaries that split and reformed into different alliances in a kaleidoscopic fashion, fought with the British and against the British and, mainly, against the Arabs. Many would  class them as terrorists. Future prime ministers Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and current president Shimon Peres served in these groups. In 1946, there were 91 people, Arabs, Jews and British, killed in the bombing of the King David Hotel, 46 injured in the hotel with further casualties outside. When the King David Hotel bombing was mentioned, Chaim Weizmann started crying heavily. He said, “I can’t help feeling proud of our boys. If only it had been a German headquarters, they would have gotten the Victoria Cross.” Netanyahu described the bombing as a legitimate act with a military target, distinguishing it from an act of terror intended to harm civilians. Civilians were harmed.

Another future prime minister Ariel Sharon, was commander of “Unit 101,” an Israeli special forces unit. On October 14, 1953, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli civilians, Unit 101 executed sixty Arab men, women, and children in the border village of Qibya. Anyone remember Shatilla? Estimates of the dead civilians vary between 800 according to international sources to 3,500 according to Palestinian sources. Robert Fisk estimated 2,000 bodies as did Israeli journalist, the late Amnon Kapeliouk in  Le Monde diplomatique : (See also articles on Sri Lanka by the estimable Padraig Colman: In 1982, an independent commission chaired by  Irishman Sean McBride (son of WB Yeats’s muse Maude Gonne) concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were, directly or indirectly, indubitably involved. The Israeli government established an investigation, and in early 1983 it found Israel indirectly responsible for the event, and that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre for allowing the Phalangists into the camps. The UN General Assembly condemned the massacre as an act of genocide.

History and Truth

K said:

“Jews were not the only people who migrated to the area in the half century before Israel was founded and it’s a little disingenuous to assume that one population was completely indigenous while the other was completely foreign – neither contention is true.”

K and  I agreed that the territory on which the state of Israel now sits was not empty in 1948. The fact that some of the sitting tenants  were Jews is not particularly relevant. Even if, as K says, a majority were Jewish  and had been there for thousands of years – that  also is not particularly relevant.

Israeli historian Tom Segev says, in a footnote, that the term yishuv  was used because, as well as “settlement”, it meant the opposite of “wasteland”, suggesting, consciously or not, that Zionist settlers were living in a wilderness devoid of other human beings, that is, Arabs.

According to Segev, in the 1840s, “Palestine was a rather remote region of the Ottoman empire with no central government of its own and few accepted norms. Outsiders began to flock to the country towards the end of the century, and it seemed to awake from its Levantine stupor. Muslims, Jews, or Christians, a powerful religious and emotional force drew them to the land of Israel. Some stayed only a short time, while others settled permanently. Together they created a magical brew of prophecy and illusion, entrepreneurship, pioneerism and adventurism – a multicultural revolution that lasted almost a hundred years. The line separating fantasy and deed was often blurred – there were charlatans and eccentrics of all nationalities – but for the most part the period was marked by drive and daring, the audacity to do things for the first time. For a while the new arrivals were intoxicated by a collective delusion that everything was possible”.

There was huge influx of new Jewish settlers from Europe for whom room had to be found. This was bound to alter the balance. This happened even before the state of Israel was born. Segev writes: “Tens of thousands of people, most of them Jews, came from Eastern and Central Europe. Among them were courageous rebels searching for a new identity, under the influence of Zionist ideology”.

Founding father  Ben Gurion said:  “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” Around 800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Benny Morris and Illian Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs. However, some Jews thought  the territory earmarked for Israel  too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.

Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.

In 1948, Ben Gurion was able to put his relocation plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; eleven ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.

Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.

There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

It seems that to found and sustain a nation, “glorious past-invention” is essential. Benedict Anderson has dealt better than I, with my limited powers, can with the “imagined communities” that are nations. The philosopher AC Grayling has written: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth that is not home to more than one different but usually co-existing culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity”.

Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has argued that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – genetically,  in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He   was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

I have written about nationalist myths in greater depth at:

Confusion between explanation and approval

DL: “I am referring here to your extended list of episodes of Jewish violence against Arabs, whose contextual import you left dangling before readers, thus inviting them to fill in the blank with respect to Arab violence against Jews.”

What DL left dangling is whether he defends the listed acts of violence against Palestinian civilians. I ask him plainly .”Do you deny that  acts of violence such as those listed were carried out in the furtherance of the establishment of the state of Israel?”

I hereby state  quite plainly that I do not believe that acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors.

The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. I wrote: “Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a thirty year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only language policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?”

Disagreement is not the same as censorship

I have encountered this in real life as well as on blogs. People with whom one disagrees proclaim their rights under the first amendment. If I tell  someone I think they are  wrong they can get back and tell me how I am wrong. Disagreeing is not a form of control. I have enough trouble controlling myself without trying to control anybody else.

Someone else commented:  “Out in big boy blog world, bloggers are always challenging each other’s opinions and writing. The idea that all criticism is attacking another person , that only praise is allowed, is just idiotic.”

DL  ‘whinged’ about me accusing him of stifling debate by promiscuous use of the epithet “anti-Semite”. This is a sticks and stones kind of thing; this is not censorship in the extreme sense of having an iron-spike shoved into one’s brain through the eyeball. At the very least, though, it is a serious devaluation of the currency of language. It will not make me shut up but more timid souls might be reluctant to participate for fear of being unjustly accused of the horrible evil of anti-Semitism. Shame on you, DL!

Debasing the currency of language.

My feeling was that  K seemingly gave permission to criticize Israel and then withdrew it. I said that he had ‘sneakily’ changed his  ground. Perhaps I  should have said something about sleight of hand, or prestidigitation. DL  seemed to call me an anti-Semite for using the word ‘sneakily’. He changed his ground a little when I challenged him. He  said: “At the very least, I’d think that one would want to be highly conscious of the language one chooses when addressing topics as sensitive to Jews as antisemitism. Is Padraig an antisemite? I have no way of knowing, but I do know now that he is willing to toy with rhetoric that dances right up to the edge — and he is too clever a writer not to know just what he was doing.”

I sought further clarification and he told me: “’Sneakiness’ is part of the standard antisemitic stereotype of Jews, whether you like it or not. You are far too sophisticated to pretend unawareness. I don’t assert that you ‘must’ be an antisemite on this basis. I call it out as evidence of a willingness on your part to play around with some decidedly ugly rhetoric. Own it or not, but you deserved to be called on it.”

I honestly did not know that I could be seen as  employing a stereotype. When I said I had never been called an ant-Semite before he said: “You haven’t been called one now. I’m inclined to reserve my accusations of antisemitism for cases where the evidence is strong. I was quite clear in what I was accusing you of: rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes. Really, if you find it so wounding to be charged with such a thing, the simplest way to avoid such a charge is not to do the thing.”

I was not “rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes” I was flippantly using the word “sneakily”  without the slightest awareness that it was a stereotype that would offend a Jew. The particular Jew that I was addressing has not told me that he was offended, although we have had many friendly exchanges.

As soon as DL  suggested that the word was offensive to him,  I deleted it and told him so and asked him if he was happy. He replied: “Yes and no. Deleting what you describe as the inessential ‘sneakily’ in effect acknowledges my assessment of it as gratuitous, so, yes. But you also strenuously resist acknowledging the initial offense itself, so, no. Even Joe Biden had to acknowledge that his clumsy characterization of then candidate Barack Obama as ‘clean’ strayed into very dicey territory, whether he meant it to or not.”

Can’t do right for doing wrong!

As GB Shaw said to Zionist David Eder: “I cannot explain my position to you. There is something inherent in your germ-plasm which makes you congenitally incapable of understanding anything that I say. I have explained in writing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over  and over and over  and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over with the most laborious lucidity.”

K and I agreed that analogies can be misleading and even dangerous. I’m going to try one anyway. Back in the last century, I worked for the Department of Health in London in the area of child protection. The leading charity in the field conducted a number of shock horror campaigns to raise public awareness of the problem of the sexual abuse of children, to raise its own profile and to raise funds. According to the “evidence” the charity presented it seemed that just about everybody had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child.

This strategy was not helpful. Ordinary members of the public were surprised by the statistics. A lot of people thought, “I never experienced sexual abuse as a child and I don’t know anyone who has.” The charity seemed to be blaming the government for not doing more to curb the incidence of abuse. Ministers were not pleased because the charity depended for its existence on an annual grant of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as well as further grants for a number of one-off projects. Not surprisingly we began to look at the raw data. Members of the public thought sexual abuse meant rape and sodomy. We discovered that the charity had widened the definition to include accidental exposure to soft porn, inappropriate language, flashers in the park and loving relationships between teenagers who were legally below the age of consent. The currency was devalued.

Child abuse is evil. Racism is evil. The Israeli citizen said: “it puzzles me why people focus so much on questioning the Jew and his Land?” I am not doing that. “Don’t take us back to the Inquisition or the Krystall Nacht. That is regressive and not progressive.” “Anti-Semitism came and stayed.” If he is  saying that anti-Semitism still survives, I agree. How does one define anti-Semitism? Neo-Nazi parties are on the rise all over Europe. I did my bit campaigning against them in England by taking part in Anti-Nazi League marches and supporting the organization Searchlight which took great risks investigating and exposing fascist thugs. The National Front became very scary in England during the 70s (the play Destiny by David Edgar whom I knew at university was produced at the National Theatre to great acclaim). Today the British National Party has representatives in the European Parliament. I do my bit to counter the forces of racism in Sri Lanka.  Anti-Semitism is evil. Do not devalue the currency of language by absurdly widening the definition of anti-Semite or racist to include me.

What to do?!

Prime Minister Netanyahu  published  a book in 1993 called A Place among the Nations. In it he wrote that Israel had made enough concessions, by which he meant that it had abandoned its claim to Jordan which he believes should have been part of Israel. He repeatedly compares  Palestine’s  hopes for statehood with Nazism because  claiming territory for such a state resembles Hitler wrenching  Sudetenland out of Czechoslovakia. Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank would be accepting a “ghetto state” within “Auschwitz borders”.

Peter Beinart argues in the NYRB that the current coalition government is the result of trends that have come to characterize contemporary Israeli society: ultra-Orthodoxy is growing, the settler movement is becoming more radical and more influential in the government and the civil service and the army,  Russian immigrants are prone to anti-Arab racism. 77% of recent Russian immigrants support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. More than 80% of religious Jewish high school students would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.

and Abraham Foxman’s response:

Acceptance that Palestinians have a right to stay and that settlements should be dismantled might would be a good basis for working out a solution for the future but what is being done? Many do want to expel the Palestinians and the settlers are radically recalcitrant. I am not arguing that the state of Israel should be destroyed,  but its own actions may not help its survival. The Roman Empire once seemed indestructible, as did the British. I remember my history teacher saying that the Soviet Union had survived so many setbacks in its early days that it would probably last forever. It died at the age of 72. Apartheid South Africa seemed rock-solid until it wasn’t. Israel is two years younger than me and I feel a bit shaky. As the Buddhists say, “Anicca”, impermanence is all.

Recommended reading

I would like to recommend a few books that have helped me to clarify my thinking:

Bad Thoughts – Jamie Whyte

Critical Thinking: an Introduction – Alec Fisher

Thinking from A to Z – Nigel Warburton

A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston

The Meaning of Things – AC Grayling

Keywords – Raymond Williams

Why Truth Matters  – Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

Lying – Sisela Bok

Truth – Simon Blackburn

True to Life – Michael Lynch

A Nation Once Again – Invention and Amnesia


For, Freedom comes from God’s right hand,

And needs a godly train;

And righteous men must make our land

A Nation once again.


Thomas Davis

In Ireland, ‘nationalist’ rebels fought to unite the north east with the rest of the island. In Sri Lanka, ‘nationalist’ rebels fight to separate the north east from the rest of the island.

Nationalism became a common concept from the mid 19th century. Today, most people live in multi-ethnic independent nation-states. Eric Hobsbawm defined a nation-state as “a territory, preferably coherent and demarcated by frontier lines from its neighbours, within which all citizens, without exception, come under the exclusive rule of the territorial government and the rules under which it operates.”

Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future.”

Ernest Gellner wrote: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”

Paul Ignotus wrote about Hungary, “a nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.”

Attaturk, founding a modern, secular nation in Turkey, co-opted the Hittites and Sumerians to the project. The sociologist Çaglar Keyder has described the desperate retroactive peopling of Anatolia with ur-Turks in the shape of Hittites and Trojans as a compensation mechanism for the emptying by ethnic cleansing at the origins of the regime.

Linda Colley  wrote in the London Review of Books: “What is ‘national history’, and what is it for? Who and what should be included in it? And where does it take place? For all that it may appear to offer a uniquely intelligible account of a clearly demarcated political and geographical space, national history is intrinsically problematic. Territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous. The frontiers of virtually all self-proclaimed nations have fluctuated considerably over the centuries, while claims to a single, all- embracing nationhood are often contested from within, and/or sporadically overwhelmed or denied from without. In some countries, at some point, politicians and state intellectuals may succeed in propagating a unitary version of national history that wins widespread domestic acceptance. But such linear and unalloyed master narratives rarely withstand detached scrutiny, and professional historians have increasingly come to regard them with impatience and suspicion.”

In two articles in the London Review of Books in September 2008, Perry Anderson described how Kemalism founded a new nation out of the decayed and dismembered Ottoman Empire.

“Ethnic cleansing on a massive scale was no novelty in the region. Wholesale expulsion of communities from their homes, typically as refugees from conquering armies, was a fate hundreds of thousands of Turks and Circassians had suffered, as Russia consolidated its grip in the northern Caucasus in the 1860s, and Balkan nations won their independence from Ottoman rule in the next half century. Anatolia was full of such mujahir, with bitter memories of their treatment by Christians.”

By early June, 1915, “centrally directed and co-ordinated destruction of the Armenian population was in full swing. As the leading comparative authority on modern ethnic cleansing, Michael Mann, writes, ‘the escalation from the first incidents to genocide occurred within three months, a much more rapid escalation than Hitler’s later attack on the Jews.’ … Without even pretexts of security, Armenians in Western Anatolia were wiped out hundreds of miles from the front.”

In 1921, “Kemal’s army entered Smyrna and burned it to the ground, driving the remaining Greek population into the sea in the most spectacular of the savageries committed on both sides.”

“In ethnically cleansed Anatolia, Kurds made up perhaps a quarter of the population. They had played a central role in the Armenian genocide, supplying shock troops for the extermination, and fought alongside Turks in the War of Independence. What was to be their place in the new state?… A full half of the Turkish army, more than fifty thousand troops, was mobilised to crush the Kurdish rebellion. On some reckonings, more of them died in its suppression than in the War of Independence.”

After the First World War, The Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Trianon doubled the size of Romania. The nation now included Transylvania from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bessarabia reclaimed from Russia. Because these new terrirotories brought  a number of minorities into the nation – Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and others- a policy of Romanisation was deemed necessary. The Legion of the Archangel Michael  did not think the government was energetic enough in this policy. The Legion was not averse to using violence through its paramilitary branch the Iron Guard to pursue its agenda of absolute allegiance to a pure unadulterated  Romanian nation. The Romanian philosopher and essayist EM Cioran was a sympathiser  but approached Romanian nationalism from a somewhat eccentric angle. His book, The Transfiguration of Romania ,started off with the assumption that Romania was a second-rate country with  an underdeveloped culture. He envisaged a sudden rebirth in which the minorities would be obstacles. He later condemned fanaticism, including nationalist myths. “In itself any idea is neutral or should be , but man spurs it on, charges it with his own fire and madness. Adulterated, changed into belief, it enters time, becomes event: the move from logic to epilepsy is made. This is how ideologies, doctrines and bloody races are born”.

Recent developments in another part of the old Ottoman Empire give cause for concern. The conglomeration of nations known as Yugoslavia began unravelling 18 years ago. Europe’s newest nation recently emerged from the mess. For 90% of its inhabitants, the republic of Kosovo is the latest phase of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Sri Lanka did not recognise the new state because of the message about national sovereignty it gave to the rest of the world. There will be at least 120,000 ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who will not recognise the new state. Roughly half of these live under NATO protection in scattered enclaves south of the Ibar river, which is the line around which the land would be re-partitioned. How will Serbia react to the loss of 15% of its territory.

Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would not follow the US and Britain’s bad behaviour by immediately recognising the independence claims of two provinces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or of Transnistria, which separated from Moldova. But the precedent is now there and western backing for the territorial integrity of Georgia is the weaker for it.

Memories of ethnic cleansing carried out by English and Scottish colonisers and land-grabbers helped lay foundations for Irish nationalism. Later the foundation myths were re-forced by a literary movement. It has been said the literary renaissance in Dublin, which helped to forge the Irish national consciousness, came about because five or six people happened to be neighbours and cordially hated one another.

Sri Lankan nationalists such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama thero and Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said, “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.” Dharmapala wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber…We were a great people”. Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”

Historical symbols are selectively reinterpreted to create a myth of historical continuity, including a community of common ancestry and destiny.

Benedict Anderson uses the term ‘imagined communities’. He describes how Indonesia, a vast polyglot multi-ethnic accumulation of 3,000 islands under the colonial rule of the Dutch, imagined itself into a nation.

A very different nation is Switzerland, a country of three languages which was, until recently, poor and backward. The Swiss Confederation was supposed to have been founded 700 years ago. As Harry Lime said in The Third Man, ‘700 years of democracy and all they could come up with was the cuckoo clock.’ In fact, the Swiss nation only came about in 1891.

Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has shown that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand doesn’t challenge Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation but believes that its legitimacy is compromised by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist ideologues. Israel would prosper better if it were a democratic secular state belonging to all its citizens irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He   was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

Two Israeli historians who take different views about many things, Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris, both maintain that the 1948 war was not a David and Goliath struggle as is often claimed, since the Israeli forces were clearly superior to their adversaries in both manpower and weaponry. Even at the height of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there were only a few thousand poorly equipped Palestinian fighters, supported by some Arab volunteers from the Fawzi al-Qawuqji liberation army.

Morris and Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs, who were twice as numerous as the Jews. However, they viewed the territory earmarked for Israel as too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.

Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.

In 1938, following the proposal of a tiny Jewish state accompanied by a transfer of some Arabs envisaged by a British commission under Lord Peel, David Ben Gurion declared ”I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.”

The war of 1948 enabled him   to put his plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; 11 ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.

Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a high-ranking officer in the military, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.

There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to France and the US, said: “The `new historians’, even a radical such as Ilan Pappé, bring light to the dark region of the Israeli collective consciousness and pave the way for a stronger adherence to mutual respect for and peace with the Palestinians. Their work, far from representing a threat to Israel, does their country honour, and more: it is a duty, a moral obligation, a prodigious assumption of a liberating enterprise in order that the fault lines, the healthy interstices, necessary to the integration of the discourse of the Other, may take their place in Israeli experience”.


Young Irish historians have been chipping away at the Irish state’s foundation myths, causing some pain to members of the old guard and the diaspora who feel that the comfort blanket of their atavistic identity is being torn away. This did not prevent émigrés from investing in the Celtic Tiger economy.

EM Forster wrote, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Orson Welles had a similar attitude: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask ‘what’s for lunch?’”

A country is an aggregation of rocks, soil, plants, animals and humans existing under certain climatic conditions in a geographical location. Can the result of a succession of such accidents inspire love?

Nations can inspire profoundly self-sacrificing love – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Benedict Anderson: “Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will”.

Einstein and Freud exchanged letters on this topic. Freud believed the human psyche is motivated on one side by erotic instincts that seek to “preserve and unite” and on the other by destructive instincts that seek to “kill and destroy”.

Politics embodies an aspiration to promote identification and love, alongside permission to foster aggressiveness. It is unfortunate that love of country often has to entail hatred of something else. Nationalism is an effective vehicle for this dual message of love and hostility which is why it has been co-opted by so many different ideologies.

‘Peace’ has descended on the North of Ireland, (although remnants of dissident hardliners still have access to arms and sectarian violence still occurs) and the South was briefly blessed with wealth, although the global crisis has undermined the economic “miracle”.

Those who sought peace have been marginalised and those who cynically destroyed power-sharing and devolution now share power in a devolved statelet, advising other countries, like Sri Lanka, how to achieve peace.  After thirty-odd years and three thousand deaths Paisley and McGuinness became a double–act as lovable as Laurel and Hardy.

The IRA’s bombs failed to achieve a united Ireland. It was the boring bureaucratic EU that brought peace, because republicans and loyalists could join together in cross-border, pan-European institutions without ‘surrendering’ to the institutions of the old enemy.

As the old imperial blocs disintegrated, regions and aspirant nations voluntarily subsumed themselves in other blocs. Ireland and Spain deal with their conflicting nationalisms and assuage separatists by dispensing the economic benefits of the EU, which also welcomes the fragmented Balkans and the Baltic nations freed from the Soviet Union.

The Commonwealth is different from the British Empire because Mozambique from the Portuguese empire is a voluntary member and the former Belgian colony, Rwanda, has applied to join and has changed from French to English as an official language.

Could Sri Lanka strengthen its unitary sovereignty and economy by subsuming its disparate parts in a larger Asian association?

Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.

Will Sri Lanka be able to forget and fashion an entity combining all cultural histories as successfully as the Sri Lankan cricket team?

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Julie MacLusky

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