Runcible Blog

Another McCullin Book in my Collection

Yesterday I found a copy of The Palestinians by Jonathan Dimbleby at Lorem Ipsum Books. Published in 1980, it seems to be a little-known book that's long out of print, but I was excited to see it because I borrowed this book from a library years ago when I first heard about Don McCullin. The book contains 125 photographs from McCullin, including his widely-published photo of the aftermath of a phalangist murder of a palestinian girl.

Some of the compositions are spoiled by a liberal use of double trucks, and the reproduction quality of the black and white photographs is a bit low.

Despite those flaws, the book is an impressive collaboration between journalist and photographer. A couple of things strike me. Here's part of the introduction:

In the case of the 'Palestinian problem', it is particularly difficult to represent reality, even if it may be more than dimly perceived. Merely to describe the Palestinians as a people with a past, a present and a future is to call into question some of the popular assumptions from which the prevailing strategies of the state of Israel derive their justification. To go further — to pay attention to Palestinian accounts of their own history, to record the impact upon them of the rise of Zionism, to relate their stories of the exodus, the exile, and the resurgence — is for the reporter to risk finding himself in the dock, charged by an articulate lobby with being an enemy of the people of Israel, if not an anti-Semitic racist.

The most obvious symbol of this distortion is the use of the term 'terrorist' to distinguish Palestinian from Israeli atrocities. 'Terrorists' do not have jet planes to mutilate innocents from a distance; they do it with bombs in markets. Is the former less heinous than the latter because it is sanctioned by an Israeli Cabinet? Reason and morality answer 'No', but again and again the Israeli authorities emerge morally inviolate from their military adventures while the PLO is compared to the Nazis or the Ku-Klux-Klan for refusing to give up guerrilla war.

To tolerate this imbalance is to beg the central question to which all others lead: to whom does Palestine belong? This is a reporter's book. It does not argue a case, nor does it propose a solution. It merely attempts to give an account of their 'problem' as it is perceived and experienced by the Palestinian people.

And that introduction sets the tone for an unapologetic account of the history of Palestine and the creation of Israel, from a British point of view. First, if this book were written today, would it be forced to "present both sides of the issue" equally for fear of bias complaints? It even surprises me to read such a casual description of Zionism's history as the one recounted in the book; today's media has trained me to believe that evoking Zionism as a motive for Israel's aggression is akin to saying that the moon landing was a hoax. Maybe there's something to the fact that both the author and photographer are British — they have an obligation to criticize the situation because it was their empire that screwed up the region in the first place. Whatever the case, 30 years later, America still has a distorted relationship to Israel that, I think, would prevent The Palestinians from being published here today.

Second, even from the bits I've read so far, I'm depressed by the intractability of the problem. Portions of the book speak about events that could've happened yesterday rather than 30 years ago. Of course, the book couldn't have predicted Mossad's practical creation of Hamas, but it ends with a long quote from a now-irrelevant prominent Fatah member, Salah Tamari:

'I want to add something which is most important for me. If you ask a well-educated liberal Jew, "Are there Palestinians?" he'll say, "Yes, of course." He will also acknowledge that we have lived in Palestine for many hundreds of years. And if we ask, "Do they have the right to live in freedom?" he'd of course say, "Yes." "Should they not be permitted to return to their homes then?" At this point his loyalty to the state (the Jews are brought up in the Germanic tradition of greater loyalty to the state than to the individual) conflicts with his sense of justice, and he will say, "No." That is why we have to fight.

...The Jews have had a very painful experience, and because of the great influence of their religion and the impact of Zionism, they have led themselves to believe that they are only safe inside the Zionist state. Outside that state they believe they will meet persecution.

'The Jews inside Israel are riddled with fears. They're afraid of the Arab population growing in Palestine and outnumbering them; they are afraid of the inevitable progress of the Arab states which encircle them; of the growing might of their armies. So they gamble on the weakness of the Palestinians, on disarray in the Arab world, on the influence of America, and on the guilt complex of the West. And they recognize that all this is a dangerous gamble because these are all temporary factors.

'If only they could understand that our conflict is not with them, not with the Jews, but with the Jewish state. It may seem unrealistic but we believe that, as the conflict continues, the Jews in Israel will cease to believe in the sanctity of their state. We believe that their mentality will change, that they will begin to accept that the future cannot lie in an artificial, racist state, but in a new natural state in which Jews and Arabs live together in equality. But we can only persuade them of this if we are strong. We are obliged to fight.'

It's cliché to say "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Instead, I'll just wave my imperial American hand and say that the whole middle east is fucked, then I'll put The Palestinians back on the book shelf and reach for a more uplifting photo book — something by Anne Geddes should do.