Friday 27 August 2010

Greenbelt: from Bible-bashing to Israel-bashing

A tweet this morning from Simon Mayo, announcing that he and Mark Kermode would be broadcasting from the Greenbelt Festival, caused my hackles to rise. Greenbelt? Wasn’t that some kind of evangelical Christian event? What was 5 Live doing associating itself with religious propaganda?

On taking a peek at the Greenbelt website, I realised that my perceptions of the festival were hopelessly out of date, and that this annual gathering has moved on a bit since I last took notice of it. With mainstream acts like Courtney Pine and Gil Scott Heron appearing, and speakers such as Peter Tatchell and Clare Short, Greenbelt has clearly broadened its appeal somewhat. According to the website:

Our 37-year history is firmly rooted within a Christian tradition which is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged. Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes. And, as such, the Festival is family-friendly celebration, inclusive and accepting of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background or belief.

All very commendable. So, I wondered, what exactly do they mean by ‘politically and culturally engaged’? Curious, I clicked on the ‘Campaigning’ link and my hackles, which had all but subsided, began to rise again.

Under the banner heading ‘Greenbelt: standing for a just peace’, were ten links to other web pages. No fewer than seven of these were explicitly about Israel/Palestine. And it was pretty clear where the site’s sympathies lay. One of the links was to ‘Tutu on divestment’ and another to a page headed ‘If Greenbelt was Gaza’, where I found the following information:

If Greenbelt was Gaza is part of our onsite campaigning this year at Greenbelt – forcing festivalgoers to confront the stark contrast between life for our festival community over the four days of our long weekend together with the day-to-day life experienced by Palestinians in the Gaza strip.

Be prepared for checkpoints that will bring you up short. Be shocked at how hard everyday life can be. Be moved and motivated to act for change. To campaign for a Just Peace.

A general ‘Campaign link’ was illustrated with a photo of demonstrators in terrorist-chic keffiyehs and provided ‘links to other like-minded organisations working in the Middle East’, most of them pro-Palestinian and only one Israel-based. There was also a blog feed on the home page, and all of the posts it linked to were about Palestine.

In other words, the political and cultural ‘engagement’ of which the Greenbelt organisers are so proud is an engagement with just one issue. There is literally no mention anywhere on the website, under the campaign links or elsewhere, of any other cause or issue that might invite the urgent concern of ‘engaged’ Christians. Nothing about the appalling human rights abuses and extreme suffering of the peoples of Sudan, Burma or North Korea, for example. And despite the organisation’s hand-wringing over the plight of Palestinian Christians, its site shows no awareness of the infinitely worse oppression and violence inflicted on Christians in other countries, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world.

No, Greenbelt is obviously concerned – obsessed would not be too strong a word for it, on the evidence of its website – with one issue and one issue alone. Not only are the organisers monomaniacally fixated on Palestine, and Gaza in particular, but they are ruthless in their determination to present only one side of the argument and to exclude all other viewpoints. To be sure, Christians should have compassion for the plight of the Palestinians and work constructively to improve their lives. But surely they might have some sympathy left over for the people of Israel, living in fear of rocket attacks from Gaza or bus bombs in downtown Tel Aviv, sponsored or tolerated by the organisations with which Greenbelt invites us to show solidarity?

You’d search in vain on the Greenbelt website for any suggestion that there might be other causes for the sufferings of the Palestinian people, besides the perfidious actions of the despised state of Israel. You’ll find no reference to the failure of Arab states to provide homes for Palestinian refugees or to support the development of a Palestinian state, or to the Islamist takeover of Gaza by Hamas and its increasingly repressive restrictions on the lives of the local population, not to mention its refusal to allow supplies to cross from Israel, even from the Islamist-infiltrated flotilla. Nor will you find any mention of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and uprooting of thousands of its settlers, which has produced not an iota of compromise from Hamas, but instead has been followed by deadly rockets targeted at civilians in towns such as Sderot.

The single-minded obsession of supposedly ‘progressive’ Christians with the Palestinian issue and their resolutely one-sided view of the issue makes me both angry and sad. In the days when I was a practising Christian, I was a member of the Christian Socialist Movement and an ardent supporter of liberation theology. Although no longer a believer, I still hold out hope for the revival of a thoughtful, progressive Christian Left.

But if Greenbelt is anything to go by (not to mention the many similar examples collected by the admirable Seismic Shock), then a significant section of the Christian Left has chosen to align itself with some of the worst elements of the secular pseudo-left and has uncritically hitched itself to the skewed anti-Israel anti-Western agenda of the Stop the War Coalition and the SWP.

One hesitates to talk of antisemitism. But given the record of the Christian church throughout history, this singleminded focus on the supposed sins of the Jews, to the exclusion of all other injustices, combined with what Tony Blair the other day called the 'conscious or often unconscious resistance, sometimes bordering on refusal, to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view', should certainly give one pause for thought.

'Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes...inclusive and accepting of all': unless you happen to be Israeli, that is. As the Greenbelt festival-goers encounter their fake Gazan checkpoints this weekend, perhaps they'll pause for just a moment to wonder what it would be like, and how they would feel, if Greenbelt were Sderot.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Israel's critics 'unwilling to listen to other side'

Tony Blair on the 'de-legitimisation' of Israel:

There are two forms of de-legitimisation. One is traditional, obvious and from the quarters it emanates, expected. It is easier to deal with. This is attack from those who openly question Israel’s right to exist. It is easier to deal with, because it is so clear. When the President of Iran says he wants Israel wiped off the face of the map, we all know where we are. This is not to minimise the threat of course. It remains and is profound. It is just to say that were this the only form of de-legitimisation, it wouldn’t warrant a conference of analysis; simply a course of action.

The other form is more insidious, harder to spot, harder to anticipate and harder to deal with, because many of those engaging in it, will fiercely deny they are doing so. It is this form that is in danger of growing, and whose impact is potentially highly threatening, in part because it isn’t obvious.

I would define in it this way: it is a conscious or often unconscious resistance, sometimes bordering on refusal, to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view. Note that I say refusal to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view. I’m not saying refusal to agree with it. People are perfectly entitled to agree or not; but rather an unwillingness to listen to the other side, to acknowledge that Israel has a point, to embrace the notion that this is a complex matter that requires understanding of the other way of looking at it.

Read the whole thing here.

Monday 23 August 2010

Zero tolerance

Three great contributions to the Ground Zero 'mosque' debate:

Hitch calls for tolerance on all sides - from Muslims as well as their opponents.

Chas argues that friends of Israel should reject alliances with anti-Muslim bigots.

And Norm links to a piece about inter-faith tolerance at the site of the attack on the Pentagon.


Two more indispensable guides to the Fox-fuelled furore from Frank Rich and Justin Elliott.

Saturday 21 August 2010

What we did (and who we saw) on our holidays

As promised, then, a brief account of our trip to Portugal. We were staying in the hills a few miles from Lisbon, within easy reach of the city, and of Sintra and Cascais. Much of the time was spent, as is our custom, sitting in the sun and working through a pile of books, but we made a few forays out to explore our surroundings.

Sintra (see photo in last post) was the retreat of Portuguese monarchs, and home to a number of wealthy eccentrics, who’ve left their mark in the architecture and landscape. For me, the charm of the place was somewhat undermined by the large number of crumbling, neglected buildings, and by the tourist coaches cramming the narrow streets and squares. However, we enjoyed our visit to the Palacio Nacional, and found refuge from the crowds in the Loja do Vinho, right on the main square, where the young maitre d' allowed us to sample a range of fine ports with our coffee. And on the way back to the railway station, we came across the Fabrica das Verdadeiras Quijadas da Sapa, which makes some of the finest cakes in the region.

The seaside town of Cascais was another scene of faded glory, its fine villas now overwhelmed by English pubs, tourist shops and badly-planned overdevelopment. We walked along the seafront, past beaches thronged with Lisboetas on day trips, to the equally faded resort of Estoril, once the playground of European royalty and apparently the inspiration for Casino Royale.

There was no disappointment of any kind, though, in our two train trips to Lisbon, the first from Sintra, through the multi-racial working-class suburbs of the city to Rossio station, the second from Cascais, overlooking the sea and the Tagus estuary, to Cais do Sodre. As we had 'done' Lisbon pretty intensively four years ago, we felt under no pressure to rush around the sights, but instead strolled about, soaking up the endless charm of one of my favourite cities. On our first sortie, we wandered through the Baixa to the vast Praca do Comercio, taking coffee at the Café Martinho da Arcada, Fernando Pessoa’s regular haunt, before shopping in the Chiado and having lunch at a theatre restaurant, in the very square where the great man was born. On our second visit, we climbed up the Rua do Alecrim, stopping briefly for coffee at a cool bar with free wifi, then wandered through the alleys of the Bairro Alto, before descending for lunch at the excellent, book- lined Café no Chiado, which we first visited back in 2006.

During our stay, the Portuguese media were dominated by news of forest fires throughout the country, due to the unusually high temperatures. We had a close call of our own last Saturday, when the hillside opposite us burst into flame and thick smoke billowed across the valley, until the local bombeiros and a water-spraying helicopter finally extinguished the fire.

It was on the same day that we bumped, almost literally, into a member of the British Cabinet. I have a habit of coming across celebrities when we're on our travels: previous sightings include Nancy Pelosi taking tea in San Francisco, Shami Chakrabati in Tuscany, and the Archbishop of Canterbury at Land's End. This time it was none other than Michel Gove, on holiday with his wife and children. Watching Mr Gove en famille and in vacation mode, it was quite difficult to maintain my one-dimensional image of him as school-wrecker and right-wing ideologue. And googling him on our return hasn't helped: he is, after all, a member of the Henry Jackson Society, opponent of Section 28, admirer of Tony Blair, and author of Celsius 7/7. If this were America, he'd probably be a centrist or conservative Democrat. Anyway, close encounters with politicians certainly play havoc with one's prejudices and preconceptions.

Since this is not one of those gossipy political blogs, and I'm not an MP-stalking Twitterer, I'll reveal no more. Except to let slip that Gove's holiday reading included Robert Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon. I recognised this instantly, as I'd packed a copy of my own for the holiday. Wilson's lurid murder mystery jumps back and forth between the 1940s and the present, linking Nazi gold, the Salazar dictatorship and contemporary Lisbon (incidentally, can anyone recommend a good book - in English - on the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974?).

While we were away, I also read Jose Saramago's Balthasar and Blimunda, a compelling and often very funny romp through eighteenth century Portugal, which takes swipes at monarchy and religion and includes elements of Marquezian fantasy. I also enjoyed Philip Graham's brief memoir of his year in Lisbon, which started life as a series of blog posts, and is reminiscent of the writings of Adam Gopnik. And I almost finished Jenny Uglow's splendid The Lunar Men, her engrossing narrative of the overlapping lives of 18th century inventors and innovators such as Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley.

That's the holidays done with, then. Time to catch up on what I've missed in the blogosphere during my absence.

Friday 20 August 2010


(Sintra, near Lisbon: view from the Palacio Nacional)

I'm back, but rather travel-weary and preoccupied with matters domestic, so taking time to work myself up to a post about our time in Portugal. But I'll get there: just watch this space.

Friday 6 August 2010

Thursday 5 August 2010

'What do you think I fought for on Omaha Beach?'

In celebration of the overturning of Proposition 8, here's 86 year old World War Two veteran Philip Spooner speaking at a public meeting on marriage equality in Maine last year (via via):

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Returns and reprieves

He's back! And on splendid form. I shall have to update the blogroll. So welcome back then, Brigada Flores Magon, who seemingly has enjoyed a reprieve from a serious health scare. Now let's all wish the same for dear old Hitch.

A brief interlude, and some links

A brief interlude between absences (we're back from Cornwall, but off again on our travels at the end of this week, and away for half of August).

Just time to thank Bob for all the links/recommendations, and to make a couple of my own. Bob, who obviously has a very long memory, holds me to a promise I made more than a year ago, to return to Roger Scruton's piece on secularism, irony and forgiveness. I shall certainly do so, when I have a little more time. In the meantime, I'm grateful to Bob for providing links to commentary by others, specifically to posts by Ben Gidley, Kenan Malik and Francis Sedgemore, all of which I recommend.

Scruton's original article is accompanied by one of my favourite paintings, Rembrandt's 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' (above), on which Henri Nouwen's book of the same name, perhaps the only 'spiritual' book to have left any kind of impression on me in recent years, is an extended and endlessly surprising meditation.