Today I am posting an essay I wrote in 2009, and that was published in German translation in the book Denk ich an Palästina, edited by Guenter Schenk. In this book 26 activists, mostly German, described how they came to Palestine rights activism. Alas, its publisher went bust, but the book may still be sourced online or directly through Guenter (indirectly, through myself) for €18, free postage worldwide included. You will find a review of it here.
My road to Palestinian solidarity.
When I was 10 years old I decided that I would become a classical composer, and have lived with the consequences of that decision ever since. A little later on, I began to read fiction, poetry, and even philosophy as if print were soon to become obsolete (as perhaps it will!). From my mid teens I added theatre, cinema, and painting to my interests. In short, I was and have remained a "culture vulture".
Of course the culture that I absorbed and that absorbed me was entirely western, and predominantly European. It comes naturally to classical musicians to feel that their "roots" are in countries other than (even if including) their place of birth, so from an early age I had little sense of nationalism and a kind of extraterritorial loyalty to countries like Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia - the great centres of the European classical tradition.
In literature and philosophy, I soon found that many of the writers who most excited me were Jewish. If Joyce was a hero, Kafka was a God. In poetry, Paul Celan made every other poet seem irrelevant. In philosophy, Jacques Derrida magisterially swept away the metaphysics of presence. In music, too, although the classical mainstream was gentile, Alkan, Mahler, Schoenberg and Ligeti were all Jewish. Like the Europeanised American poet Sylvia Plath, I used to declaim "I think I'm a bit of a Jew..."
In 1990 I moved part-time to Paris. I witnessed huge demonstrations against the imminent Gulf War. I read Chomsky's Deterring Democracy, and became friendly with Arabs – including Palestinians – who denounced the hypocrisy of ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuweit while allowing Israel to remain in the Occupied Territories.
My previous political involvement had been on the fringes of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and I was beginning to take an interest in East Timor. I had always felt uneasy about Palestine, believing that terrible things had happened there but that the Jews "were an exception" because of what they had suffered. My sense of cultural affinity with Jews made it easy for me to think this way, but also contributed to my uneasiness – because not all Jews supported Israel.
I paid my first visit to the Middle East in 1993, witnessing the startling contrast between Jewish and Arab Israel, the still greater contrast between Israel and "the territories", and the turbulent misery of the refugee camps. I witnessed the results of Israeli bombing in Lebanon, and read Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation while I was in that country.
Later that same year, I was Ireland's delegate at the World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Mexico City. I was one of those who spearheaded a revolt of smaller countries, angry that their composers were almost never represented at ISCM festivals while those of Britain, France, and Germany were over-represented. One of my allies was the Israeli composer Menachem Zur, a liberal Zionist, with whom I became – and have remained – warm friends. Subsequently I even worked together with the Israeli Embassy in Dublin to organise an exchange between Irish and Israeli composers, one of whom, Hagar Khadima, came to Ireland and stayed in my flat in Dublin, while I travelled to perform at a music festival in Kishinev, Moldova (unaware that this had been the site of a horrible pogrom against the Jews in 1903, commemorated in the great poem City of Slaughter by the Zionist poet Chaim Bialik).
So I still had inhibitions about getting involved in a campaign against Israel. Until, in 2001, Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister, and it was no longer possible to sit on the sidelines. East Timor was moving towards independence, and the chairman of the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign, the legendary Tom Hyland, was already looking for new territories to liberate. Together with a number of activists including myself, Tom founded the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) in November 2001, shortly after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
For a time, the IPSC didn't do much except organise itself. With "Operation Defensive Shield", the brutal re-invasion by Sharon of West Bank towns and refugee camps, all that changed. A massive propaganda war broke out, in Ireland and elsewhere, and I suddenly found myself obliged to write several letters daily to different publications, including some quite obscure provincial newspapers – Zionists, as Edward Said repeatedly insisted, pay great attention to detail. I had to acquire some basic knowledge of international law and humanitarian law, as well as of history, and I read voraciously. Meanwhile, Tom Hyland had resigned the chair of the IPSC for health reasons, and I took over the organisation, remaining its Chairperson for 3 years.
Slowly but surely all my doubts vanished and a new realisation took their place: with all my liberalism and concern for human rights worldwide, I myself had represented everything that I was now fighting against. I had failed to look either at myself or at the culture which had produced me and of which I was a producer, and to recognise the seeds of discrimination planted alongside those of emancipation. I began to understand that "making an exception" of the Jews was what anti-Semites did, that philo-Semitism is only the other face of anti-Semitism. And yet it is this exceptionalism that allows Israel to continue breaching every law known to humanity, and to be defended unconditionally by politicians and commentators who salve their guilt about Europe's past crimes against the Jews by facilitating Israel's present crimes against the Palestinians.
None of this has turned me against my cultural background, or changed my admiration for Kafka or Celan or Mahler! However, I have come to understand the truth of the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin's words: "every document of culture is at the same time a document of barbarism". I have begun to learn about the wealth of Arab and Islamic culture. I have come to see the struggle for the liberation of Palestine as simultaneously a struggle for the liberation of Europe from its worst and most atavistic imperialist and racist impulses.
For me, this has also been a liberation.