A schoolboy fight in the Middle East

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in some ways, reminds me of my own childhood. And if I think about it, it relates to everyone’s childhoods, and to schoolboy fights in general.

A bit about myself – from early childhood I was mostly “topper types”. Yes, my school gave out “ranks” from the age of 6, and I had started topping then. This made me the teachers’ pet, and object of friends’ ire.

It didn’t help that I was the first person in class to wear spectacles, and was the slowest runner (and thus not very athletic), and had a stammer, and all this put together meant that I was an obvious target for other boys in the class to “tease” (I don’t know / remember why the girls didn’t participate in this. Maybe they had their own target).

Nowadays, I don’t have much patience for being troubled, and it was the same 35 years ago. After a little “teasing” (or bullying, if you might call it that), I would hit back. Literally. While I ran slow and was generally un-athletic, I was easily the tallest boy in the class. And so when I hit people, it hurt. On a physical 1-1 level, the fights were largely one-sided (I mostly remember whacking people, not getting whacked).

Soon this pattern emerged – someone would provoke me and in reply I would whack them. And then someone would complain to some teacher who would see that I had made a much bigger transgression than what the others had done, and then scold (or occasionally hit – my school allowed that) me, much to the joy of the others.

This kept happening, and there was seemingly no end to it. And then one day (or maybe over a period of time), ten years had gone behind us. We had grown up. We hit puberty. Our priorities in life changed. This wasn’t fun at all. We moved on. Nowadays I’m fairly good friends with many of the guys who used to tease me back then.

Thinking about it, there is nothing exclusive to me in this story. If you have siblings (I don’t), you might have seen this happen in your house. The smaller one provokes the bigger one, who hits back (mostly literally), causing a transgression much bigger than the provocation. This plays into the smaller one’s hands who then complains to the parent, who censures the bigger one, much to the joy of the smaller one. Again, this kind of stuff continues, until the kids grow up.

At some level (I know of the massive ongoing destruction and cruelty), the fight between Israel and terrorist groups such as Hamas can be thought of in a similar fashion. Israel is the “bigger kid” with an ability to whack the smaller kids to a level where they can’t hit back directly. Israel is also the kind of bigger kid who will just whack in retaliation without paying attention to “what people might think”. Hamas is like the mischievous little kid out to bug the bigger kid.

Over 75 years of fighting, the situation has now got to the point where the typical schoolboy fight gets played out, though at a much larger scale and with far far more damage. Hamas provokes Israel. Israel hits back with much greater force. It is clear that Hamas can’t whack back Israel with the same ferocity that Israel hit them. And so they go crying uncle. The “uncles” temporarily outrage. The situation (hopefully) comes back to some kind of an uneasy truce. And then it repeats.

Unfortunately, unlike schoolboys, countries (and terrorist groups) don’t grow up. I don’t know what the “puberty equivalent” for Israel and Hamas is, that will let them forget their mutual fight and unite for other common purposes. Until they find some such, the fighting will continue.

Moeen Ali and the counterfactual

There has been much furore in the cricketing world over the last couple of days after the ICC (International Cricket Council) appointed match referee for the ongoing England-India Test match censured England player Moeen Ali for wearing wrist bands in support of Gaza. One the second day of the Test match, when he batted, Ali wore wristbands that said “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza”.

While the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) absolved him of any wrongdoing claiming it was his personal beliefs, the ICC has been less kind to him stating that this is in violation of the ICC code that prevents cricketers from making political or racial statements on the field. Ali has been asked to play the rest of the game without the wrist bands, and might face a fine for the violation of the Code of Conduct.

Source: NDTV

What has complicated matters, however, is that during the third day of the Test match, the English players (including Ali) all wore a “Help for Heroes” message on their shirt collars. Help for heroes is a UK military charity and the symbol on the shirts was meant to commemorate a century of the start of the Great War. As expected this supposed “double standards” by the ICC (allowing the England team to wear a message in support of a charity but not allowing Ali to wear a message in support of Palestine) has drawn attention from commentators about double standards by the ICC.

While it is true that the ongoing undeclared war between Israel and Hamas has been largely one-sided in terms of casualties, and that a large number of Palestinian civilians have been collateral damage in the conflict, we should look at Ali’s wristbands as some kind of a positioning with respect to an (undeclared) ongoing war. And in order to determine whether his message was appropriate, we should use the “flip test”.

What if instead of supporting Gaza, a player in the ongoing Test (Virat Kohli, say, without loss of generality) wore wrist bands supporting Israel? What if Kohli wore bands that said “Save Israel” or “Free Israel”? Would the ICC have reacted similarly? And if the ICC had reacted similarly would commentators have reacted the same way as they have now, censuring the ICC for its stance?

I’m not trying to take sides here, and whether Ali’s wristbands were to be banned is a complex issue beyond the scope of this blog. All I’m trying to say here, however, is that a decision on a case like this should be agnostic of the side that the possibly offensive player is taking. A political statement is a political statement, and whether it falls within the limits of the code of conduct has to be determined irrespective of the side that it is taking. That is the only way regulation can be impartial.