This is a book every Israeli should read.
Robert Fisk is a British journalist who writes for The Independent. He lives in Beirut and has been reporting from the Middle East for decades, having witnessed many of the region’s conflicts firsthand. The West’s interest in Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 terror attacks in the US propelled him to fame, because of his interviews with the bearded arch-terrorist during the 1990s.
In this book, Fisk sets out to explain the “Conquest of the Middle East” (the subtitle of this book). He borrows the name of the book – “The Great War for Civilization” – from words engraved on one of the medals his father received for participating in World War One (Fisk’s father features prominently in this book, with Fisk the son expending considerable efforts to reconcile his pacifistic ideals with the fact that his father wore a uniform and held a gun). The book covers many of the conflicts in the Middle East: the Armenian Genocide, Algeria’s civil war for overthrowing French colonial rule, the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, the civil war in Lebanon, the Soviet and West’s wars in Afghanistan, the two Gulf wars in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fisk was witness to many horrors in these wars. His prose is most masterly when he describes these horrors in great detail. We get to know many of the victims personally, and some get a “mini biography” several pages long, as Fisk traces their families and friends to reconstruct a life that has been brutally taken or shattered by war. Afghans, Algerians, Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese and many other Arab and Muslim victims receive a passionate and compassionate treatment. In this respect, Fisk’s attention to detail and his aptitude for understanding human suffering are remarkable.
But given Fisk’s extensive experience and knowledge of the Middle East and the grandiose title of the book, one would have expected this voluminous tome (well over 1,000 pages in hardcover) to provide an insightful and well though-out perspective into the “conquest of the Middle East”. That was certainly my expectation.
Instead of a perspective we get a rambling, disordered memoir that is despairingly long and pompously self-centered. After a few hundred pages, the reader comes to realise that this is not a book about the Middle East conflict or even the victims of war; it is a book about Fisk and his terribly misguided outlook on life, an outlook that can be summarised in a few short sentences. Everything the West does is wrong, especially the US and Britain. The Arabs are blameless victims of the West’s brutal aggression. There is no such thing as “terrorism”, only the desperate acts of people who have been repressed and abused for too long. And, last but not least, we have a modern-day prophet who can open our eyes and expose all the lies: Robert Fisk.
As an account of the Middle East conflict, this book is a total failure. It reads like a collection of newspaper columns, shoddily lumped together with little thought given about what they all mean. There is no “big picture” perspective. The graphic detail of some of the war horrors are borderline war porn. Fisk’s shattered soul after decades of reporting these horrors is understandable, yet one is left with an uneasy feeling that it is Fisk we are really supposed to feel sorry about, not the real victims.
Now the reason why this is a book every Israeli should read.
Fisk’s commendable humanitarian approach to the victims of the “Great War for Civilization” in the Middle East is nonexistent when it comes to Israeli victims. The innocent lives of the hundreds of Israelis who died in senseless and barbarous terrorist attacks by Palestinian terrorists get only a cursory mention, and almost always in order to find some excuse to exonerate the terrorist and “explain” his motives. In most cases the Israeli victims have no name; none get the biographical treatment that Arab victims get in this book. Fisk is unable to mask his hatred of Israel and his bigotry is exposed in all its ugliness when he is incapable of feeling any compassion towards Israelis whose lives were torn apart by war.
It is important for Israelis to understand Fisk, because his attitude is representative of the outlook of many Europeans towards Israel. Fisk is not ignorant of the facts of the Arab-Israeli conflict, yet his selective and one-sided views influence those of many who are not as well-versed in the facts. This delegitimisation of Israel in the guise of pacifistic humanitarianism is a danger we should all be aware of, and Fisk is an excellent example of this danger.