So goes the simple counter melody to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 song, Happy Christmas/War Is Over. The Vietnam war was still raging when Lennon penned this universal message for the album, Imagine.
Fifty-two years later, the 30 children from the Harlem Community Choir who sang on the recording would be in their 50s and 60s now, if still alive. I wonder if any enterprising journalists have tried to find and interview these people.
What in Lennon’s name would they think about the simple call for peace contrasted with what’s going on in December 2023?
As I wrote this, the UN Security Council was trying once more to have its Israel/Gaza ceasefire resolution passed, hopefully without another US veto. Israel insists that a ceasefire will leave it defenceless against Hamas attacks. The inference is that Hamas, as a terrorist group, will pay no heed to a UN resolution.
In case you are confused, the ceasefire resolution passed last week by the UN Assembly is a non-binding agreement. The UN Security Council, however, can force a ceasefire if it gets the resolution passed.
I turned to Al Jazeera for the latest on the Israel/Gaza war, which started on October 7, after Hamas fired missiles on Israel, with 1,200 Israel civilians killed.
The bombing raids and subsequent invasion by Israel has left at least 20,000 Palestinians dead, including large numbers of children.
Which made me wonder when our Prime Minister took the podium at a Lowy Institute function this week and backed Israel’s right to defend itself. Mr Albanese and foreign Minister Penny Wong came out early in the conflict supporting Israel, as did US President Joe Biden
Last week Penny Wong sided with the UN Assembly’s call for a ceasefire, which is a fair U-turn on the original statement. The UN General Assembly resolution was passed 153 votes to 10, with 23 abstentions.
It’s fair to say that any discussion between friends and family over the Israel/Gaza war will inevitably become terse. It usually comes down to one’s heritage and previous experience with sectarian conflicts (Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine), which tends to divide families.
My life partner is a Canadian-born Australian who has tracked her Jewish maternal family back to Latvia, where her ancestors fled the pogroms in the late 1800s.
The key difficulty is if you disagree with Israel’s position you are seen as anti-Semitic.
(Ed: I certainly disagree with Israel’s position, and it would seem odd to classify me as ‘Anti-Semitic’- more accurately, anti-uber Zionist).
This a summary of the most recent history from the Council for Foreign Relations: (words in parenthesis are my attempts to clarify)
In 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan, which sought to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. (Britain was given the mandate in 1917 by the League of Nations after seizing Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire).
On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was created, sparking the first Arab Israeli War. The war ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory, but 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, and the territory was divided into 3 parts: the State of Israel, the West Bank (of the Jordan River), and the Gaza Strip.
Over the following years, tensions rose in the region, particularly between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Following the 1956 Suez Crisis and Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria signed mutual defence pacts (against Israel). In June 1967, following a series of manoeuvres by Egyptian President Nasser, Israel attacked Egyptian and Syrian air forces, starting the Six-Day War. After the war, Israel gained territorial control over the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria.
It is demonstrably the case that trouble was expected from the formation of the nation state of Israel. In short, both sides believe they are entitled to occupy the land. These beliefs go back centuries, to biblical times, even. When the British decided to leave Palestine (which they had occupied since the end of WWI), they created a doctrinal vacuum in which Arabs and Jews were supposed to co-exist.
Israel has been accused of genocide (meaning the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group). Israel in turn says it is focused on rooting out and destroying the terrorist group, Hamas.
Whatever you want to call it, the daily footage of ongoing destruction and killing in Gaza, accompanied by hawkish statements from Benjamin Netanyahu, does not point to the UN successfully brokering a lengthy ceasefire.
I just happened to be reading The Fog of Peace, a memoir by French diplomat Jean Marie Guéhenno. Early in his tenure with the United Nations, Guéhenno was asked to review UN peacekeeping missions which had been in place for decades.
The brief was to weigh up the importance of the missions against the ongoing costs of maintaining them.
This is how I learned of the existence of UNTSO, an observer mission formed in 1949 to monitor the ceasefire between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbours. This mission, based in Jerusalem, is still in place today.
Guéhenno writes that while closing down the mission made good management sense, maintaining it meant making the political point that the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours remains a big issue.
The UN loves acronyms so I should explain that UNTSO is The United Nations Truce Serving Organization. In 2023, the mission has 53 military observers, 81 international civilian personnel and 148 national civilian staff. Some 27 countries including Australia contribute to the ongoing operation of UNTSO. Since we are recording facts, 50 people working for UNTSO have been killed since its establishment 74 years ago.
Meanwhile, our PM and his Foreign Minister remain tied to the US, which is highly unlikely to say Yes to an immediate ceasefire without substantial amendments to the resolution.
Which brings us back to War Is Over, If We Want It.
Lennon is dead, shot by an allegedly disturbed fan in 1980. In the nine years between Lennon’s ultimate call for Peace and his death at an assassin’s hand, 84 wars, civil conflicts, military coups and insurrections went unchecked. Vietnam ended but other wars began.
As Jackson Browne observed in Lives in the Balance:
There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interests run,
In the 43 years since Lennon died, there have been 104 wars in which the US was involved. While the US is not actively involved in the Israel/Gaza war, it provides aid to Israel and its foreign policy dictates what happens from here on. Should Australia be aligning itself so closely to the US, given the divisive signals that sends to the Australian people?
Forty percent of us were born overseas and 213,900 of our citizens were born in one of the 23 Middle Eastern countries.
As Lennon sang in 1971: “And so it is Christmas”.
Yes indeed, but it won’t stop Pro-Palestinian public protests in our capital cities and who are we to say they shouldn’t.
I’d probably recommend banning the above discussion at the Christmas table, even though you are now as up to date as you’d want to be.
Find a soothing playlist which should include Silent Night, O Holy Night, a couple of Australian carols (Carol of the Birds, The Silver Bells), and this one, a version of The First Noel set to Pachelbel’s Canon.
Play Fairytale of New York if you must. We prefer Dirty Old Town.
Bob and Laurel