When traditions and insecurities cloud the mind

The prejudices of West Bank ultra-Zionists illuminate the fallacies and contradictions at the heart of our failing climate policies. [5 February 2013 | Peter Boyer]

Louis Theroux in conversation with West Bank settler Yair Lieberman. BBC

The best insights into life happen at the most unexpected times, as it did the other night when I sat down to watch Louis Theroux put a human predicament through its paces.

If you’re not across Theroux, his surname should give him away: he’s the son of novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, younger brother of another novelist, Marcel, and cousin of the actor Justin. He makes seriously good television documentaries about odd-ball people and extreme situations.

This time he looked at Jewish settlement in the West Bank, contested land seized by Israel from Jordan in a 1967 war over Jordan River water rights. For thousands of years in this region, Arabs have lived side by side with Jews, with whom they are connected linguistically and genetically.

Internationally, the West Bank is seen as occupied Arab territory, but some people disagree. Ultra-Zionist Jews see the whole West Bank as Jewish — God’s gift to them along with Israel’s original territory. This is their motivation for settling on land that for millennia has been home to Arabs.

Theroux asked a settler with an Australian accent named Daniel Luria why he sought to replace Arabs with Jews in the West Bank hotspot of East Jerusalem, a place that clearly meant something to the majority Arab population.

“There’s never been a Palestinian people,” replied Luria. “If they want to express themselves nationally, they can express it somewhere else. Why should it be at the expense of the Jewish homeland? My roots are here, not theirs.”

Another moment in the show sent a chill down my spine. When Yair Lieberman, a young man living in a tent on a West Bank hilltop, told Theroux that the land he was on was Israeli, not Palestinian, Theroux replied “A Palestinian would say, this is my home.”

“This is your home because you took it from me,” said Lieberman. He was referring not to any recent event, but to a dimly-understood time in ancient history.

Then came this exchange. Theroux: Do you view Palestinians and Jews as equal? Lieberman: No. Jews are the chosen. Theroux: What will happen to the Palestinians? Lieberman: I don’t know. God will do with them whatever he wants. I stay here.

The Old Testament is still alive and kicking in this 21st century, among West Bank settlers at least. For them, knowledge about the human condition that science and history have built up over centuries means nothing.

Unlike those who wrote the scriptures, we now know that humans evolved from ape-like animals by means of natural selection. We’ve worked out that all humans share a common genome and that ideas about “racial purity” are self-serving twaddle.

Luria and Lieberman came across as intelligent and aware. Yet they told Theroux and the world, without a trace of irony, that God’s promise of a homeland is absolutely, literally true, and this gives them a perfect right to take homes and land from others they regard as inferior.

The ultra-Zionist settlers are not alone. As Theroux showed, they are supported in their beliefs, both openly and discretely, by the Israeli government’s military and police. Many in the West, Christians as well as Jews, give money and other support.

Intolerance is everywhere. Abandoning their religion’s traditions of tolerance and hospitality, some Muslims have attacked people transgressing their creed, or outsiders, including Jews, who don’t share their beliefs. Christian, Hindu and Buddhist majorities in some countries abuse or neglect religious and ethnic minorities.

Such intolerance arises out of insecurity. A lot of people today feel threatened, and sometimes as they feel the threat closing in they react with anger and aggression.

We all have the potential to behave badly because we’re all feeling a threat, which some see more clearly than others, from a wholesale shift in the natural order of things. Time-honoured belief systems and norms are being questioned as never before, and we feel profoundly uneasy.

One of the norms to which we’ve become very accustomed — even addicted — is economic growth, which meant the 2008 global financial crisis was a big threat to people’s security. But the threat from climate change, while slower to take effect and harder to discern, is many times bigger.

With the GFC fresh in our memories and climate change looming over our heads we’re under the hammer. In such a context, voters and governments alike are having to consider the implications of Australia’s gigantic and growing coal industry.

Analysts tell us that efforts to cut coal-fired power will have a dampening effect on Australia’s domestic coal market. But that doesn’t apply to exports, and China, while declaring it intends to cut carbon emissions, looks set to continue taking as much coal as we’re willing to supply.

A British study commissioned by Greenpeace has projected that global carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 will be higher by 760 million tonnes as a result of Australian coal exports — second highest globally (behind Chinese domestic coal) among the world’s 14 biggest developments.

Given our fear of an economic downturn, it’s not surprising that the Minerals Council of Australia’s Mitch Hooke repeated the mantra that stopping coal exports will just send jobs offshore. He knows he has support among voters, and therefore among government ministers.

There’s the rub. Australian coal exports will have to take a hit if we’re to slow the runaway growth of global emissions. I would welcome this, as would many farmers in NSW and Queensland copping the disruption that Australia’s new coal and gas boom has left in its wake.

But many would bitterly oppose it, and governments across Australia know this. Like Daniel Luria and Yair Lieberman, they have closed their eyes and minds to what the world knows to be true. They will maintain the status quo and pretend it’s all right because they fear electoral anger.

The “epic fail” of public climate policy foreshadowed last month by Tasmanian climate change minister Cassy O’Connor is unfolding before our eyes.

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