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Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

October 31, 2023

If, like me, you’ve been overwhelmed by the torrent of words and images from and about Israel and Gaza, you probably won’t want to read this. But I’m writing it anyway. For the record, so as to speak.

The Latin quotation in the title of this post comes from Tacitus, the Roman historian who imagines a speech from Calgacus, a Scottish chieftain, before he goes into battle against the Romans. In English: Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.

Actually, these words are at the end of a sentence. The quotation in full reads: They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace. 

I’ll leave you to determine whether the words of Calgacus can be applied to the present, or even to the recent past.

If Tacitus returned to life in the present day, what words might he put in the mouth of a horrified observer of events in Israel and Gaza? Something like this, perhaps:

If I criticize Israel’s bombing of Gaza, you show me dead babies murdered by Hamas.

If I deplore the actions of Hamas on October 7, you take that to mean I am anti-Palestinian.

If I criticize Zionism you call me antisemitic, even though my understanding of Zionism might be different to yours.

If I assert Israel’s right to exist, you accuse me of agreeing with Israel’s every action to secure that existence.

If I deplore the selective use of scriptures to justify killing people, you call me antisemitic or islamophobic, depending on which scriptures are being quoted.

If I see pictures of thousands of protesters at a rally, you would have me believe that each and every protester is doing so on the same basis of belief.

If I resent attempts to manipulate my views with blatant or subtle disinformation, you just point yet more disinformation in my direction.

If I ask why the death of half a million people in Syria provoked less public outrage in Europe and America than the killings in Gaza and Israel, you accuse me of false comparison.

If I point out that blood feuds are rarely settled with blood, you tell me about the last outrage, not the first one.

If I point out that the use of words and phrases such as “genocide” and “war crimes” have themselves become weapons of war, you accuse me of sympathising with the perpetrators.

If I point out the shortcomings of one culture or political entity, and balance those observations with criticism of another, you accuse me of sitting on the fence.

These sentiments, of course, are mine.


I have no idea how it feels to be the descendant of people who were murdered in Nazi death camps. I have no idea how it feels to be the descendant of people who were expelled from lands that were home to them for generations.

But what I do know is that expressing the hideously complex in simple slogans is tantamount to deceit. So I refuse to speak in terms that give others leave to jump to conclusions over “whose side I’m on”. I’m on the side of humanity.

I can only speak from the experience of watching conflict erupt and subside over seven decades. And that experience from a distance – of Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and any number of other wars – tells me that military means might end a conflict, political settlements might create the conditions for peace, but only forgiveness and reconciliation can heal the wounds handed down from generation to generation. And only the perception of justice by all sides in a conflict can bring about that forgiveness and reconciliation.

So for what little these words are worth, I urge all parties, for the love of the God most of you agree you worship in common, to stop fighting.

Stop before you bequeath a wasteland to your children.

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