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LEAVING OMELAS

The Rhinoceros

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1515

This isn’t the editor’s letter we want to publish or that I want to write. As we go to press, the relentless Israeli bombing of Gaza continues unabated. Confronted with this spectre of horror it is impossible to put pen to paper on any other subject. It is reported that the bombings are killing a child every 10 minutes and that there have been more children killed in Palestine in the past four weeks than in all other conflicts globally for the past five years. Meanwhile political leaders in the US, UK and most European countries refuse even to call for a ceasefire; that responsibility has been transferred to citizens. We can’t tolerate the implication that these children have forfeited their right to life because of where they are born and politics they know nothing about. 

Gaza’s population is under collective punishment. It has been denied food, water and medical supplies, hospitals have been bombed, small children and pregnant women are being operated on without anaesthesia. Many of those who call this a moral outrage are labelled supporters of terrorism, some by politicians in the democratic countries in which they live. Harvard Law students are doxxed, journalists harassed and academics sacked. It’s not just the scale of the horror there, but the enforcement of an absurd official narrative that is grotesque.

In his 1959 play Rhinoceros, the French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco paints a potential picture of how a society can be transformed without noticing it, losing its humanity a little at a time, until it has become monstrous. Written in the aftermath of the Second World War, the play is a dramatic attempt at processing French trauma under Nazi occupation. It shows how the occupation of the country quickly evolved into the occupation of the minds and souls of its citizens. The play depicts how perfectly moral, upstanding people can wake up one day and look into the mirror to find themselves transformed into thick-skinned beasts. 

It is always easy to be wise after the facts. From the vantage point of 1959 the lessons of history were reasonably self-evident and easy to learn. The challenging thing is spotting the slow motion trend towards fascism at close range. The hardest thing of all is investigating a small bump on one’s own forehead before it’s too late.

They say the people deserve their rulers; we say nobody deserves the crop of politicians running Europe at the moment

Three days after the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territories on October 7, but before the demonstrations calling for ceasefire in Gaza started taking place on successive Saturdays in the UK, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, suggested in a letter to the chief of the Metropolitan police that the display of Palestinian flags and chanting of pro-Palestinian slogans could be deemed illegal. So far, wiser heads at the Met have prevailed and peaceful demonstrations have taken place without any violence and only a handful of arrests. That said, it’s hard to imagine the police or Home Office have any other options given Britain’s already overcrowded jails which would certainly have struggled to accommodate a further couple of hundred thousand people.

Of course, like Mrs Braverman’s subsequent statement on October 30 that called the demonstrations “hate marches”, we may consider this mere political theatre. But it’s hard not to put it in the context of the same politician’s well-publicised confession, “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane [load of asylum seekers] taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession”. This is a lady with a pretty recognisable bump on her forehead. 

Where a previous generation of Conservative politicians might have justified the Rwanda policy as an unpleasant practical necessity, for her, this cruel, impractical, expensive legally dubious policy is internalised. Some might dream of winning the lottery or falling in love, Braverman dreams of worsening the suffering of some of the most desperate people on Earth. One might think that a person with that level of sociopathy might require counselling or therapy, but we, the British voters, have instead chosen her to govern us. 

They say the people deserve their rulers; we say nobody deserves the crop of politicians running Europe at the moment. Since October 7, both France and Germany have also tried to enact repressive rules to restrict the freedom of speech and assembly of European citizens. Despite that, just this weekend – the first in November – we again saw spectacular crowds on the streets calling for a ceasefire, from Washington, Berlin and Paris to Jakarta and Sydney.

In Sydney, the Australian investigative journalist Anthony Loewenstein addressed the media. His book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, published by Verso this year, catalogues how Palestine has grown to become a laboratory for the Israeli techno-military complex, which uses the occupied territories as a testing ground for weaponry, repression and surveillance technologies which are then exported around the world. In one startling example, Loewenstein describes how IDF consultants helped support the 1982 coup in Guatemala. The president of the subsequent military junta, Efraín Ríos Montt, told ABC News that Israeli training had made the coup “a smashing success”. His government went on to commit genocide during a dirty war against the indigenous people of Guatemala; Montt remains the only former head of state to be tried and convicted of genocide in his own country. This is just one of dozens of examples documented by Loewenstein that show how the brutalisation of Gaza is not merely a tragedy for the people there but for people everywhere.

In a short story from 1975 called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the late American science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin describes the city of Omelas, a utopia where citizens enjoy unparalleled happiness and prosperity. This idyllic existence, however, comes at a disturbing cost. Beneath the city, in a dark and damp cellar, a malnourished and mistreated child is confined, living in squalor. This child’s perpetual suffering is the price the city pays for its continued well-being.

Each and every citizen of Omelas learns of this dark secret when they come of age. They are told that were this child to be freed, or comforted, the city’s prosperity and happiness would crumble. While most citizens come to accept this moral trade-off, others find it impossible to do so, and leave Omelas, walking away from its pleasures never to return.

To look at the way the crisis is being covered in the media is to hold up an X-ray of a body politic riddled with disease. When politicians rushed to offer support to their ally after the attacks of October 7, refusing in the crucial days after to condemn or even acknowledge the bombing campaign unleashed by Israel on Gaza, they gave carte blanche to the most right-wing, racist and extremist government Israel has ever had. Likewise, the press has been seemingly incapable or reluctant to investigate either the claims made by the IDF or the social media accounts of those Palestinians documenting their own obliteration. Both responses have come to seem extremely myopic. The growing body count and images of devastation recorded by a small minority of news organisations (notably Al Jazeera) and the ordinary Gazans on the ground have told a different story. As the days went on, the disconnect between Western countries and the rest of the world – demonstrated by votes in the United Nations, and the comments of Secretary General António Guterres – grew ever wider.

The result has been a yawning gap between public opinion and the accounts in mainstream media. Grassroots action groups like Jews Against Genocide – to take just one example of many – have shown that the powerful and compliant media do not assuade the populus as they hope. At least a sizable proportion of the population, regardless of their political opinion on the matter, think that to keep people in an open air prison smaller than the Isle of Wight, and then bomb them with explosive power equivalent to twice that dropped on Hiroshima, is wrong and should stop.

As the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates described in a public meeting, most folks, when presented with the situation on the ground, easily find their moral compass. Drawing parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement, and on his own experience of visiting the West Bank, Coates concluded that this generation can no longer overlook the inbuilt racism of previous generations that justified Zionism as something other than Jim Crow by another name. Two decades later, the 9/11 playbook, that the cruelty of what is done to us justifies our behaving like monsters, can no longer sustain itself. This lullaby won’t send the children back to sleep. The kids, having reached maturity, are leaving Omelas. Masoud Golsorkhi