Gaza flotilla: riding on a wave of narcissism

Gaza-bound do-gooders claim they only want to send ‘love’ to Palestinians. The evidence suggests they’re more in love with themselves.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Here we go again. The second Gaza-bound armada, named Freedom Flotilla II: Stay Human, is currently awaiting clearance for departure at a Greek port. This year the organisers, rather than sailing under the pretence of being a humanitarian mission, have largely admitted, even boasted, that what matters is The Message.

Of course these activist voyages to Gaza, which have been sailing for the past three years, have always had a political intent. However, delivering cargo was also talked up as a significant part of the mission. So when the Israeli authorities denied crew the right to hand over their cargo in person, it gave the activists an opportunity to shout to the world’s media that Israel is an inhumane power preventing Palestinians from receiving wheelchairs, toys, medicines.

This year, however, the focus is more openly on the message. ‘The Freedom Flotilla is indeed “a political provocation”. Why shouldn’t it be?’ says an American member of the International Solidarity Movement. This year, the US ship involved in the flotilla, named The Audacity of Hope, is literally loaded with messages – it is carrying what have been called ‘love letters’ from Americans to Gazans.

The flotilla organisers still promote the patronising idea that Gazans are suffering an acute and unique humanitarian crisis and are hermetically sealed off, even starved and ghettoised, more so than any other people in the world. And ironically, this has played into Israel’s hands: it has allowed the Israeli government also to focus on occasionally giving ‘humanitarian assistance’ to the Palestinians, rather than on more pressing and awkward political matters, such as lifting restrictions on the free movement of goods and people that really hinder economic prosperity in Gaza. The Israel-based NGO Gisha, which campaigns for freedom of movement, has rightly expressed its frustration with the flotilla’s pity for Palestinians, since it reduces Palestinians to the level of passive recipients of Westerners’ or Israelis’ aid and favour.

Yet beneath the flotilla activists’ aloof assertions that they are helping to end the siege on Gaza, whether by delivering essentials in earlier years or by becoming pen pals with Palestinians this year, in truth their real motivation is a desire to imbue their own lives with a sense of moral purpose.

The flotilla organisers claim to be acting in solidarity with Palestinians, and no doubt there are many Palestinians who welcome the global media spotlight and the pressure on Israel to ease the blockade on Gaza. But it is a curious type of solidarity that is so singularly narcissistic and self-satisfying.

For instance, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and one of the most high-profile crew members of the US ship, has said: ‘Why am I going on the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza? I ask myself this, even though the answer is: what else would I do?’ Now aged 67, Walker has apparently found a new purpose in life, namely to bring ‘letters of love’ to the ‘children of Palestine’. She sees herself as an experienced elder, bringing words of wisdom and comfort to Gaza’s children.

Her focus on Palestinian children is not simply a soppy cliché; rather it’s a way of placing herself in the role of mother. She and her boat companions want to care for and protect Gazans, maternally, to feed them and nurture them and give them ‘love’. Palestinians are deemed to be helpless not only because they live under a de facto occupation, but because, in the view of the flotilla activists, they are incapable of securing their rights without the benefit of the life experiences of the likes of Walker.

Another flotilla passenger, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy, says Palestinians need Westerners to ‘leverage our privilege’ on their behalf. For Naiman this doesn’t only mean acting as a human shield and protecting Palestinians from evil, but also telling Palestinians how they ought to conduct their political struggle. ‘[It’s not so much] “showing” in the sense of teaching’, he says. ‘It’s more a question of “showing” in the sense of demonstrating a successful example.’

There is very little self-effacement in the so-called solidarity that the flotilla-ists are extending to Palestinians. On the contrary, this is a media stunt disguised as a risqué act of self-sacrifice. This becomes most clear in the activists’ insistence that they are putting their lives on the line ‘for Palestinians’. In an article for the CNN News website, Walker speculates about what will happen if the Israeli soldiers ‘insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us’, while Naiman, writing in the Huffington Post, says he is participating ‘in this voyage at risk to my life’. Yes, the Israel Defense Forces launched a fiasco of an intervention into last year’s flotilla, with violent confrontations that led to the deaths of nine activists. But the IDF hardly plans to score such a PR own-goal again.

By painting Israel as the scum of the Earth and the Palestinians as the salt of the Earth, the flotilla crew are not only narcissistically advertising themselves as the noble saviours of Palestine. They are also hoping to relegitimise and reinvigorate the West’s moral imperative to act as the heroic rescuer of the Middle East. Indeed, for all the hyping up of the flotilla’s non-violent resistance and the crew’s ostensible backing of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, in fact the flotilla crew are a war-thirsty, interventionist bunch.

After last year’s flotilla, many ‘radical’ activists and commentators called for Israel to be punished by the ‘international community’. Some suggested sanctions, others called for NATO to send in its troops, and yet others wanted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be put on trial for ‘war crimes’. This week, the acclaimed Swedish crime fiction writer and two-time flotilla crew member, Henning Mankell, told Swedish press: ‘I’m considering suggesting very soon the setting up of an international tribunal with independent experts on international law who can confirm that the [Israeli blockade of Gaza] is illegal.’ How helpful. Perhaps he can get Wallander on the case?

Today, denouncing Israel seems to be one sure-fire way of creating a sense of consensus at a time when there are few issues that unite people in the West. So everyone from one-hit-wonder authors to street-cred-seeking politicians, from Nobel Prize laureates to Islamists, wants a piece of the anti-Israel action. It has become a badge of honour for members of respectable Western society to be able to stake a claim in the struggle against Evil Israel and in defence of The Children Of Palestine – whether they do it by going native and moving in with families in the West Bank, by donning that trendy political garment the keffiyeh, or by taking to the high seas in boats where journalists nearly outnumber crew members, which means you might get your name and photograph in an international newspaper.

Today, following the Arab uprisings, many Western radicals are envious of these foreigners who seem to be expressing their political passions in a way that has become alien here at home. So for some, boarding the flotilla this year looks like a chance to play a role in the changing set-up in the Middle East. (The Canadian boat is even named Tahrir, after the square that became the epicentre of the Egyptian uprising.) But this is not political solidarity as we might have understood it in the past. Rather this flotilla is riding on a wave of Western narcissism. And in the end, it’s the Palestinians who will pay the price for it – not only by being reduced in the eyes of the world to the level of helpless children who need Alice Walker to mother them, but also by potentially becoming the targets of Israel’s unpredictable, defensive responses to being put under the global spotlight once again.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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