Halliday Turns to Arendt and Deutscher on Israel-Palestine

In the wake of the current Arab-Israeli, Fred Halliday offers and odd recollection of his first encounter with the issue and turns to Isaac Deutscher and Hannah Arendt.

The Oxford debate of October 1964 [on the Arab-Israeli conflict] thus took place before the enormous shifts of sentiment and solidarity, evident today in relation to Lebanon and the Hizbollah movement, towards Arab causes and away from Israel…

The debate was conducted along already (and still) familiar lines: on one side, evocation of the genocide of Jews in Europe under Nazism (the term “holocaust” came into general use only later), the Arab refusal to accept the 1947 United Nations partition plan, the Arab responsibility for the flight of the Palestinian population in the war of 1947-1949; on the other, the violence of the Zionist acquisition and conquest of Arab land, the betrayal by Britain of its many promises to the Arabs up to its unilateral backdoor scuttle from Palestine in May 1948, the hypocrisy and passivity of the international community thereafter.

As it continued, however, the atmosphere became more disputatious. Edward Attiyah’s speech was interrupted by the shouts, way beyond normal heckling, of a group of young supporters of Israel who rose to their feet in unison, seeking to silence the speaker by accusing him of being a “Nazi” and raising their arms in mock-Hitler salute. This must have been hard to take for the author of the elegiac autobiography of a Lebanese upbringing, Having Been an Arab, who (in common with other modern Arab intellectuals such as George Antonius, Albert Hourani, Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said) was brought up as a Protestant, and in his case had identified England as his spiritual home.

I was never to find out. Attiyah battled on, his voice rising intermittently above the din, before a sudden pause. A throttled sound came from his throat, and he fell to the floor, victim of a heart attack. He was dead. I shall never forget the sound of his body hitting the union’s wooden floor.