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Book review: Place is the Passion by Bill Williamson

Folk singer Leon Rosselson reviews a book to help ordinary people understand the Israel / Palestine conflict.

September 9, 2016
6 min read

place is the passionDr Bill Williamson is Emeritus Professor of Continuing Education at Durham University. In a presentation at Housmans Bookshop, he said that his aim in writing the book was to help ordinary people who are interested but perplexed to understand the Israel/Palestine conflict and so bring about change. A bold ambition. How well has he succeeded?

Dr Williamson eschews a straight historical narrative, choosing instead to focus on different aspects of the conflict in nine short chapters with titles like Breaking the Power of the Past and Re-imagining the Future. This fragments the history and entails a certain amount of repetition and overlap but, by the end, the perplexed reader will certainly have clearer understanding of how the Israeli state came into being and how the conflict has reached its current impasse: on one side an expansionist, militarised state with a right wing government dominated by a religious settler bloc and with a Palestinian minority discriminated against and viewed as a demographic threat; on the other side an oppressed, occupied, besieged Palestinian people with its leadership split between, in the West Bank, a secular Palestinian Authority that no longer has any credibility and, in Gaza, an Islamist, socially conservative movement, Hamas.

The perplexed reader is also likely to become emotionally engaged in this struggle between two peoples for one piece of land (the title, Place is the Passion, is taken from a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish) because the book is not just analysis and an assemblage of facts. I doubt that Dr Williamson would claim to be a dispassionate observer. He is clearly personally involved, passionately opposed to the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people and admiring of their resilience and continuing non-violent resistance. But he also recognises that for Holocaust survivors Israel was ‘a great symbol of hope and security’ and ‘the place to rebuild their world on new foundations’, though, as he points out, in reality, Israel has been an inhospitable place for survivors. And he is justly concerned that the occupation is brutalising Israeli society and that the trajectory Israel is on cannot guarantee its security. The human stories and personal experiences, especially in the chapters on Palestinian resistance and Gaza, are an important part of the argument that the status quo is unsustainable.

So now, with, as he says, ‘the two-state solution widely acknowledged to be moribund’ along with the so-called peace process, which, with its imbalance of power was never going to achieve a just peace, how does he envisage change coming about? As he makes clear, the Zionist colonising project and Arab opposition to it cannot be seen in isolation but have always been part of a wider international order in which the interests of Western powers and the Arab states have played – and still play – a vital part. In short, ‘Israeli power is inseparable from that of the USA and of its European allies’. Therefore, ‘there needs to be a radical rethinking among Western and Arab leaders of their policies towards Israel’. Well, yes. But how do we achieve that?

He seems to place his hopes on ‘a massive shift in public opinion’; the power of civil society, ordinary citizens in Europe and the U.S.A. who are no longer perplexed, pressurising their governments into withdrawing their support for Israel and basing their policies on human rights. ‘The key task now…’ he writes in the second chapter, ‘is to nurture through debate a greater understanding across the world about the roots and catalysts of the Israel-Palestine conflict.’ And ‘those who support peaceful solutions based on human rights have to campaign hard for change’. The italicised words have a tinge of desperation about them. Somewhat meandering aspirational sentences expressing the same belief occur throughout the book. Those who seek a political resolution need, he writes, ‘to find ways to exert pressure on Western states to compel changes in their politics towards the region’. This assumes that these states – the USA above all – don’t have their own interests in funding and supporting Israel. But, as he himself says, Israel is locked into the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism. Israel and the West have mutual interests in the fields of information technology, intelligence, security, armaments and construction. American policy on Israel is driven by its strategic, military and economic interests not by the lobby groups. So while I support, as he does, Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) and campaigning groups like Jewish Voice for Peace in the States and Jews for Justice for Palestinians in the UK and while I agree that changing public opinion is important, I don’t expect to see any change in Western policy which would compel Israel to remove the settlements and end the siege of Gaza any time soon.

In the last chapters, he sets out what he believes would be a just solution to the conflict: ‘a secular, democratic, bi-national, modern state with defined, secure international borders founded on respect for the human rights of all its citizens.’ The end of Zionism, in short. A bi-national state is not a new idea. The PLO at one time supported it. Early Zionists like Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt favoured it over a Jewish state. There is some support for it in Palestinian civil society. But, apart from a scattering of marginalised individuals, none at all in Israel. To the nationalist religious bloc, the idea is anathema, and opposition to it would be a cause to kill and die for. Even a peace campaigner like Uri Avnery is adamant that it couldn’t work. Dr Williamson accepts that such a solution is not at present feasible but insists that, given the alternative, it is an idea that must be imagined, discussed, debated and campaigned for. He closes the book with a quote from Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: ‘What is now proved was once only imagined.’

This is a useful book, well worth reading. If you are perplexed – or even if you are not – it will make you better informed and better able to argue the case for justice and human rights. I hope it sells out its print run so that a new edition can eliminate the misprints of which there are far too many.

Place is the Passion is available via the Radical Read project. Visit www.leonrosselson.co.uk for the latest work of Leon Rosselson, Jewish singer, songwriter and author.


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