Neutral ground – A way out of ideology

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I stopped supporting the Palestinian cause about a decade ago. To do so, I had to first live in close contact with Arabs and Palestinians and then with Jews, in a neutral ground, so to speak.

As a young far-leftist, supporting a Third World country struggling against a militarily superior power seemed like a logical consequence. On the other hand, Israel had often engaged in actions contrary to international law and questionable from a de-escalation standpoint, but that wasn’t the perspective that interested me. For a young far-leftist, the issue was capitalism, capitalism was the United States, the United States supported Israel, and therefore, the enemies of Israel, the United States, and capitalism became allies.

I had long since abandoned the damages of ideology when the opportunity to attend a journalism course in Sweden came my way. It was 2013, and I was no longer wearing the keffiyeh I had bought at sixteen, but I still didn’t feel ashamed of having worn it during protests or even just walking through the streets of my hometown.

The housing opportunities offered by the municipal agency in Örebro limited my search to the Brickebacken neighborhood, not far from the university campus and generally inhabited by families of foreign, often Middle Eastern, origin. It was, and still is, a relatively peaceful neighborhood, despite some episodes of minor crime that foreshadowed the rise of criminal organizations that are currently causing serious problems for Swedish authorities.

In conversations with neighbors during the spin cycle at the communal laundry or during breaks between classes at the university, I noticed that some comments, jabs, or remarks that would raise eyebrows and reprimands in Italy, were going unchecked. Soon, I realized that among young people of Middle Eastern, sometimes even Palestinian, origin, there was not only no distinction between a distant state and a religious belief or culture, but there was a complete absence of critical thinking regarding hostility towards Jews. It could be the student advocating for the boycott of Israeli-imported pomegranates or the neighbor making the classic quip about the alleged wealth of Jews. It always ended there, in a land so different from a peaceful, extremely pluralistic, and, above all, generous Sweden.

I thought of the stories of journalist Peter Ljunggren, who had tried to walk around Malmö wearing a kippah and risked being beaten at every corner, or the courageous Iranian activist Siavosh Derakthi who tried to explain the Holocaust to second-generation Swedes of Iranian descent and received death threats in return.

How could you hold such resentment, even when thousands of kilometers and years of coexistence with the extremely peaceful Scandinavian culture separated you from the events reported in the media (violence was about to erupt following the killing of three young Israelis)?

The answer came a few months later, as life had taken me to Budapest in the meantime, where I had found a job and would soon find a wife. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was at the Kiraly baths when I overheard a conversation between two people speaking a language completely unknown to me. They were white, clearly Western, but spoke a language that was not Hungarian, not Slavic, Germanic, or anything else. I mustered the courage to ask one of them during a break. “We are Jews, this is Hebrew,” said a man in his seventies who was talking to an Israeli tourist.

Today’s Hungary is not exactly an example of tolerance and pluralism, and far-right anti-Semitic movements, though a minority, have occasionally tried to make themselves heard. Yet, in the same city and on the same streets that made life impossible for Jews in the 1930s and where thousands of people met their death during World War II and the Arrow Cross regime, I found a man who was more than content with his life and the ability to express his identity. A prominent entrepreneur with strong Italian ties would later share a similar story with me at a dinner.

Even in the darkest hour, with nazi boots marching across the Hungarian capital and trains filled of prisoners directed to death camps, violence was not an option, let alone towards innocent Hungarians who happened to live their life under the authoritarian and antisemitic regime of Miklos Horthy.

Ideology has erased the minds of some of the brightest of my and my parents’ generation  (ask the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn). I notice it when I read news about Italian students wearing keffiyehs praising Palestinian resistance, forgetting that our partisans in WWII, even in the (few) instances where they didn’t live up to their mission, never resorted to executing and beheading dozens of children in their beds. Or when cheerful messages appear on social media from people who have been spared the fate of spending their lives in war zones, yet they try to bring the conflict here, to latitudes where the most interesting part of the news should be the weather forecast.

About the Author
Enrico Varrecchione, born in 1987, is an Italian journalist writing for Linkiesta. He is specialized in Northern European politics.
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