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After so many bombings, there is little moral high ground in the Middle East

Ian Bell

YOU can still find historians prepared to dispute the fact of Adolf Hitler. What did he really know about genocide, they will ask, in terribly reasonable voices, and when did he really, evidentially, know it? My answer tends towards the simple. Long before his Holocaust, Adolf asked a question of his own. “Who will remember the Armenians?” he said.

The creep wasn’t kidding. One-and-a-half million perished in 1915 because no-one among the Great Powers cared much, if they cared at all. Hitler regarded the silence as a licence for his programme. If no-one minds about the wholesale Turkish eradication of a nation, Adolf reasoned, who will then care about a million, or three million, or six million despised Jews?

I turned down a dinner-party invitation, once upon a time, just because David Irving was on the guest list. That was easy. More complicated was the assumption, taken for granted among those decent Edinburgh dinner-party folk, that I might wish to “argue” Holocaust-denial . Perhaps – for such is a middle-class life – I needed an opportunity to “debate”, or to “put him straight”. Where I come from, there are other options.

Who will then remember the Armenians? In March of 1921, in Berlin, a kid named Soghomon Thelirian approached one Mehmed Talaat from behind, on a busy street, and put a bullet into the Turk’s skull. That gentleman, recently his government’s interior minister, had just resolved “the Armenian problem”. Talaat was promenading through douce Charlottenburg with 1.5 million souls on his conscience when Soghomon did him in, simply – according to contemporary reports – “to avenge the death of my family”.

Where I come from, it counts as an option. Yet had I been Armenian or Jewish, though I lack that honour, would I ever have stopped wondering about the nature of revenge? Or rather, would I ever be able to cease to wonder? How many millions? How many engulfing waves of grief? How many eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth? How can amends ever be made? Bear in mind that when Soghomon assassinated the Turk the word “genocide” had yet to be invented. And this: who will remember the Palestinians?

When Hitler’s dead are remembered, some Jews prefer the word “Shoah” to holocaust. It translates, as best as I can gather, as “ritual burning”. It has the sense, to my ear, of sacrifice, of death sanctified. The world grasps its significance, even while those who would deny the truth of Hitler’s astounding carnage go on peddling their lies. The gas chambers and the ovens sent up plumes of sorrow that will never disperse. Yet still there are some who choose to doubt.

Where is the documentary evidence of Adolf’s intentions? Where is the piece of paper, with his signature, giving the order? That line is a favourite. In Turkey, even today, official acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide amounts to nothing more, as a matter of state policy, than the claim that there were “crimes on both sides”. In some parts of the Arab world, meanwhile, Hitler still has his fans.

People still read The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion as though a forgery concocted by Tsarist secret police amounts to documentary evidence. In Iran, a democratically-elected president talks of wiping Israel off the map for that, too, is “policy”.

When the scales are balanced, all moral weight rests with the murdered. Part of Turkey’s reluctance to face responsibility for the Armenians stems, it is said, from a fear of reparations. How many millions, how many billions, might have to be paid to achieve some sort of settlement? Germany’s democracy has been paying vast sums to Jews for a very long time, after all, in an effort to answer that same impossible question. Something is owed and the world, its rational portion at least, knows as much.

In the years since it declared itself an independent republic – May 14, 1948 – the state of Israel has demanded a moral authority unique in history. The point of its entire existence has rested on a single statement: never again. We, they say, will never again be massacred. We will not be eradicated. Surrounded by despicable regimes dedicated to its destruction, the only real democracy in the region, Israel has stood witness to the fate of the six million.

So here comes the weightiest question I can shoulder: are the citizens of Israel these days themselves complicit in genocide? And am I, or is anyone, entitled to ask the question?

All the news from what was once known as the Holy Land is bad. By the time you read this, things will undoubtedly have gone from bad to very much worse. Because of a single captured boy soldier, Gaza has been reduced to near-starvation. Because one “operation” creates the logic for a second, Lebanon is under siege. Two Israelis are prisoners, but as I write, 50 Lebanese are dead and the bombs are still falling.

By no possible yardstick is any of this proportionate. Israel has used a single incident to stamp its military authority, yet again, over the Middle East. Yet they ask us, in so many words, what else we could possibly expect. Palestine’s Hamas government will not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. In Lebanon, Hezbollah persists in launching missiles at Israeli civilians. The death cult of the teenage suicide bomber, the child dedicated to killing children, continues. What, asks Israel, is “proportionate”, exactly?

It won’t do. Even an ocean of hatred does not excuse the fact Israel is these days treating Palestinians as Jews once were treated.

Yet if I say so, one consequence is guaranteed: someone, doubtless Israeli or American, will accuse me of anti-Semitism. If I meanwhile add that the threat to Israel’s very existence is all too real, another group, often styling itself as “left”, will call me a Zionist lackey. On both sides there is an attempt, well-organised and well-funded, to close down all debate.

These days, born-again American conservatives are Israel’s most vocal allies. On the European left, meanwhile, arguments over Zionism can be stripped down, far too easily, to a barely-coded version of the old anti-Semitic garbage. At one remove the legacy of the Holocaust is traded like a kind of moral currency. At another, the suffering of the Palestinians is exploited by theocratic thugs who have done nothing useful or real, ever, for those people.

Can you criticise Israel without insulting the victims of genocide? Not according to some of those I have outraged in years gone by. Can you meanwhile support the Palestinians without subscribing to each and every piece of Islamist nonsense? Such a position is inadmissible, it seems, in some circles. Instead, apparently, you are required to become the sort of walking farce who cannot tell the difference between political thought and Big Brother.

Given the madhouse that is the Middle East, it is presumptuous to propose “solutions”. Instead, we should reclaim some language. We should say that the atrocity auctions – who did what to whom and when – must end. We should state, once and for all, that Hitler’s murders did not grant Israel an eternal, irrevocable moral licence. This is a real rogue state, complete with actual weapons of mass destruction, and it should be treated as such.

While we’re at it, nevertheless, we should also add that Hamas, democratically-elected or not, has no legitimacy if it remains dedicated to the eradication of a nation, that Iran must remain a pariah if wiping Israel off the map is its democratic choice. In the process, predictably enough, we will please no-one. That much I guarantee.

Who will remember the Palestinians? In Israel’s calculation, it seems those who might ask don’t matter. To mention the Nazis in such a context is to risk the gravest insult imaginable, but the echoes of the past are real and they are inescapable.

If we ignore them, moreover, we also insult Hitler’s victims. The Holocaust established a moral standard for us all, but it bound Israel, first and foremost, to a duty. In Gaza, in Lebanon, that duty is being held in contempt. We should be able to say so.

Instead, if experience is anything to go by, e-mail abuse will follow. Both sides will invoke their martyrs and both will claim justice as a reason for their actions. Honour satisfied, the killing will then resume. All I hope is that neither tribe mentions a loving god.

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