The world acted calmly when in the last decade, thousands of Rohingyas were killed in Myanmar, and when 40,000 Pygmies were slaughtered in Eastern Congo in 2002-3. There was barely a murmur when 100,000 were killed in Somalia in 1987-89 and only polite diplomatic protests while more than a million Uyghurs, including children, are currently being rounded up into “re-education camps” in China.
But when it comes to Israel’s response to the October 7 invasion by Hamas and the slaughter of 1200 Jews, the worst day for world Judaism since the Holocaust, things are different.
Silence for some calamities is reflected by obsession of others.
W B Yeats coined the phrase “The centre cannot hold” in his apocalyptic 1919 poem The Second Coming. Written after the First World War, at the start of the Irish War of Independence and in the midst of the great flu pandemic, it was a time when things were falling apart.
It seems the centre is not holding in 2023. In Hamas we see a group designated by the EU, the US and Australia a terrorist group that has autonomy in Gaza, a land that Israel withdrew from 18 years ago. We should have listened to the warning of Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar in December 2022: “We will come to you, God willing, in a roaring flood. We will come to you with endless rockets, we will come to you in a limitless flood of soldiers … like the repeating tide.”
In Hamas’s political leadership, in the aftermath of this massacre, Ghazi Hamad reiterated Hamas’s Israel-erasing mission: “Israel is a country that has no place in our land … We must remove it because it constitutes a security, military and political catastrophe.”
Where are the leaders of the Arab states internationally and the Muslim community domestically condemning this? Who is calling for the release of hostages? Where is the middle ground, supporting Israel while also advocating for a Palestinian state?
The centre is not holding.
Each week we see thousands marching in support of Palestine in Sydney and Melbourne while chanting “From the river to the sea”, which is a call for the annihilation of Israel, with no mention of the slaughter of Jews or the holding of Jewish hostages. Hardly a word is said about the mass rape of Jewish women, alive and dead, at the Supernova music festival in Israel, one of the epicentres of the October 7 massacre, in which female genitals were cut off and kicked around for fun.
The centre is not holding, and not just on the Palestinian side.
In Israel’s democratically elected government sits Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu. He was asked in a radio interview whether a nuclear bomb could be used on Gaza and replied: “That’s one way … There are no non-combatants in Gaza.” Was he dismissed from the government? No. Where is the proposal from Israel to enact what is its official policy, that of a two-state solution? When Yoav Gallant, a rare centrist in the governing coalition, was finally permitted to release a plan for after the war, there has been barely an acknowledgement or comment from his colleagues.
The centre is not holding.
Extremists are not threatened by their opposing extremists, since they do not talk to them. Centrists – which I have to believe the majority of us are – are intensely threatened by other centrists with slightly different views. Why? Because unlike extremists who rarely meet their “other”, we coexist together, we live together and we work together.
So what is centrism in this conflict?
It is an unequivocal condemnation of what Hamas is, did and does. The centre does not forget that Jewish hostages still need to be released. The centre wants to stop civilian deaths in Gaza. The centre wants an Israel – just one tiny country a fraction of the size of Victoria and the only Jewish homeland in the world – to live in peace and security. The centre wants a Palestinian state for Palestinian people living side by side with Israel.
Centrists need to keep talking, sharing, exploring with those who are different to us. As Hemingway said, “You may talk and I may listen, and miracles might happen.”
Centrists notice and call out extremities, whether they are an Ivy League university president refusing to say that calling for the genocide of Jews is contrary to their policies, or whether they are school students chanting “From the river to the sea.” Centrists call out community leaders and commentators looking for easy solutions and for being unable to hold multiple truths in their heads at the same time.
The apocalypse of Yeats need not come about; the centre need not fall. Predating Yeats, the liberal conservative Edmund Burke is alleged to have said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
The centre does not hold by itself. It is held by people like you and me.
Jeremy Stowe-Lindner is the principal of Bialik College in Melbourne.