The Notre Dame cathedral fire and archaeological devastation

Australian audiences watched in horror as images of the Notre Dame cathedral fire were broadcast over the airwaves. The collapse of the spire, and the destruction wrought by the fire and smoke evoked reactions of shock at the serious loss of precious archaeological and architectural heritage. Pledges of support and money to rebuild the damaged cathedral were swift and unequivocal.

There is no doubt that the loss of the Notre Dame cathedral is devastating for any person who values the archaeological and architectural heritage of humanity. Serious questions were asked as to why and how such a tragedy could occur. Certainly, the austerity agenda is being questioned, as consistent cutbacks to art, heritage and government regulations concerning safety have taken hold across capitalist countries.

Fire safety regulations and measures have been significantly reduced as the austerity agenda has been implemented. Cutbacks made in the name of removing ‘red tape’ have undoubtedly impacted public services and facilities. Archaeological artefacts and monuments are not immune from these measures, as public expenditure is slashed in the name of ‘balancing budgets’.

Cost-cutting has impacted fire safety measures, making catastrophic blazes – like the one that engulfed Notre Dame – more likely. It is interesting to note the alacrity with which the millionaires and billionaires pledged money for the reconstruction of the Notre Dame cathedral. The rebuilding of the cathedral is a worthy cause to be sure. If only such commitment was demonstrated by the ultra-wealthy towards the resolution of homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and other serious social ills.

In the context of serious cutbacks to funding the arts, archaeological and heritage sites, one cannot help but contrast the vigorous response to the Notre Dame cathedral fire with the tepid and lackadaisical response to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Governments and corporations cry poor when the underprivileged ask for help in rebuilding their lives, but are at the ready to respond to what they see as a national disaster.

British Prime Minister Theresa May displayed her rank hypocrisy – calling the Notre Dame cathedral fire a heart-rending tragedy, but failing to meet with any of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. It is not only the huge disparity in the sums of money raised between the two catastrophic events that needs to be highlighted. The fact that Notre Dame is viewed as a ‘Western’ artefact, or at least a monument to ‘Western civilisation’ worthy of garnering tremendous support, is indicative of our attitudes to the heritage and artefacts of cultures we deem ‘non-Western.’

Notre Dame is not a monument to ‘white culture’ or ‘Western civilisation’, as the partisans of the conservative Right would have us believe. The cathedral, built between 1163 and 1345, was an assertion of French monarchical Catholicism over the fragmented and disparate feudal principalities that made up France in the Middle Ages. France was nowhere near a unified, strong state governed by an overarching royalty. Strengthening the power of the Catholic church and reinforcing the authority of the monarchy went hand-in-hand.

Indeed, at the time the Notre Dame cathedral was being built, modern notions of race and Western civilisation did not exist. The Western Europeans would not engage in the transatlantic racial slave trade until hundreds of years after Notre Dame was completed. Let’s avoid reading our modern responses into history – and avoid weaponising our history to suit modern political purposes.

For the moment, let us say that Australia is an extension of Western civilisation – being a product of British imperial capitalism’s implantation on the indigenous lands of this continent. We can certainly cry for Notre Dame, and also extend our support and sympathy to non-Western nations. That is the main thrust of an article by George Morgan, an associate professor at Western Sydney University.

Professor Morgan elaborates that over the last 25 years, there have been many treasures destroyed, damaged or stolen in nations outside of what we regard as Western civilisation. Morgan points out that the September 2018 fire that engulfed the National Museum in Brazil resulted in the destruction of 90 percent of its collection, much of which were indigenous artefacts.

The archaeological heritage of Yemen is being destroyed in the context of the Saudi-led war against that nation since 2015. The Saudi-Emirati assault on Yemen has the full backing of the United States and Britain. Yemen’s artefacts include some of the most precious heritage of humanity. Lamya Khalidi, an archaeological researcher, has written of the Yemeni archaeological treasures being damaged in the Saudi-Emirati war.

Yemen’s ‘Notre Dames’ include the palaces and temples of the Sabaean Kingdoms, relics from ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities resident in Yemen, and artefacts from the time of the Queen of Sheba. The Yemeni island of Socotra, with its ecological heritage currently listed as protected by Unesco, is being gradually annexed by Emirati forces. The UAE hopes to turn Socotra into a tourist destination and an economic colony. This creeping occupation is occurring while the Emiratis are attacking Yemen’s archaeological treasures.

Ramzy Baroud, Palestinian academic and writer, has elaborated how the ‘Notre Dames’ of Palestine, its mosques and churches, are being bulldozed and demolished by the Israeli authorities as part of their programme of colonisation and annexation of Palestinian land. Baroud writes of the contrasting responses to the Notre Dame and the destruction of Palestinian antiquities:

But the very media that covered the news of the Notre Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.

The Western nations that claim, in the wake of the Notre Dame cathedral fire, to be sensitive to the preservation of archaeological heritage, have a track record of damaging and looting the artefacts and treasures of nations considered outside the Western family. In 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, the National Museum in Baghdad was looted, resulting in the loss of thousands of artefacts from the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation.

The ransacking of that museum, done under the watch of the American military, stands as one of the great archaeological tragedies of the 21st century. While the staff of the museum did what they could to protect the artefacts, it was not enough to stop this act of cultural vandalism. Then US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, when confronted by evidence of widespread pillaging of archaeological treasures in Baghdad, contemptuously and laughingly dismissed the looting with the words ‘stuff happens.’

Indeed, the systematic looting of Iraq’s national treasures provided a tremendous boost to the black-market trade in stolen antiquities – a result of the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Artefacts are gradually being recovered and returned to Iraq, but the architects of the invasion which produced this archaeological catastrophe have yet to face the consequences of their criminal actions.

At the time of the national museum’s ransacking, there were numerous reactions by non-Western nations to the criminal negligence of the American military forces. They can be summed up by this statement from New Delhi’s Pioneer newspaper:

The sacking of the Baghdad archaeological museum- now home to smashed glass cases, broken pottery, torn books and mutilated statues-will forever remain a scathing indictment of this inexcusable and manifest indifference towards the very people the coalition claims to have liberated …. The theft of irreplaceable antiquities, some going back over 7,000 years, represents a loss that cannot be calculated in material terms; it is an assault on collective historical consciousness and, hence, a spiritual dispossession and desecration of identity.

There is no denying the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire. But let us not continue to obliterate the archaeological devastation wreaked by Western nations on the histories and cultural identities of peoples considered non-white. Making recompense for the damage caused by the imperialistic and cultural vandalism of the Western states would be an important first step.

Zionism and international ultra-right parties – the warm embrace of political brethren

The fascistic President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, visited the state of Israel in March/April this year, where he was warmly welcomed. His tour of that state is just the latest in a series of building connections and links between far-right anti-Semitic political figures and the Israeli government. In December last year, the Italian Interior Minister and leader of the racist anti-immigrant Lega Party, Matteo Salvini, visited the Israeli state where he declared his unconditional support for the regime in Tel Aviv.

It is no exaggeration to state that Israel has actively courted the friendship and connections of ultra-rightist and anti-immigrant parties and ideologues from around the world. In turn, the latter have expressed their ideological support for the ethnocratic Zionist project, while holding explicitly anti-Semitic viewpoints. Why is there an open and burgeoning alliance between the far-right fascistic parties and the state of Zionist Israel?

It is interesting to note that Salvini, a powerful member of Italy’s rightist coalition government, has revived the politics and themes of Italian fascism for a modern audience. The late Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, enacted anti-Semitic legislation in the 1930s, leading to the deportation – and subsequent murder – of Italian Jews in concentration camps. Salvini has declared his intention to rid Italy of its Roma population in language reminiscent of the anti-Semitic terms deployed by Italian fascism against Jews.

The Zionist state has become a pole of attraction for various anti-immigrant, neo-fascist politicians and far-right ideologues because of the shared ideological kinship between Zionism and other ultra-rightist political philosophies. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has framed his outreach to neo-fascist and ultra-rightist forces as an exercise in pragmatic realpolitik, this rationale ignores the underlying commonalities between Zionism and ultra-rightist nationalism.

Political Zionism, being one variant of extreme ultranationalism, is admired by the international far-right for its push to construct an ethnocratic state based on the exclusion and dispossession of the Palestinians. Zionism regards the Jewish people worldwide as forming one, biologically-based indivisible nation, incapable of assimilating into the countries of their residence. This is a mirror reflection of the basic logic of the anti-Semite.

Netanyahu’s embrace of anti-Semites and ultra-rightist figures is neither opportunistic in origin nor accidental. Yvonne Ridley, writing about the open alliance between Zionism and ultranationalist, racist groups, states that:

Israel certainly has hooked up with some of the world’s most odious anti-Semites since the State was founded on Palestinian land in 1948. Such links would, no doubt, have had the blessing of Theodor Herzl, the godfather of political Zionism. Promoting Jewish migration to Palestine around the turn of the twentieth century he wrote, “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.”

One of Israel’s staunchest European allies is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The latter travelled to the state of Israel in 2018, and expressed his support for that nation. Orban makes for a seemingly strange political bedfellow of the Jewish state, having stated his admiration for wartime Hungarian dictator Admiral Miklos Horthy. In the 1930s and 40s, Horthy implemented anti-Semitic measures, cooperating with Nazi Germany in deporting and killing thousands of Jews. Orban’s praise of a wartime Nazi collaborator and killer is apparently no obstacle in forming friendly relations with Tel Aviv.

Not only anti-Semitic heads-of-state are welcomed by Israel’s supporters. Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for the Trump administration and ultra-rightist political operator, is a strong supporter of Zionism. Feted by the Zionist Organisation of America at a gala dinner in November 2017, Bannon has maintained strident anti-Semitic viewpoints, but these have posed no difficulties in acquiring friends in pro-Zionist organisations.

Let us not underestimate the influence of Islamophobia is cementing the alliance between Zionism and the far-right. Ramzy Baroud and Romana Rubeo, writing in Al Jazeera, make the perceptive observation that ultra-rightist groups and political ideologues view Israel’s suppression and exclusion of Palestinians as a strike against a common Muslim enemy. With increasing numbers of refugees from Muslim-majority countries seeking asylum in Europe and America, the far-right has fixated on a new enemy out-group, and seeks ways to counter what they perceive as ‘encroachments’ on Western civilisation – in their distorted worldview.

The ultranationalist right looks to Israel for ways to deal with the Islamic outsider. Consider the following statement by Dutch ultra-rightist MP Geert Wilders. In 2015, warning that Islamic immigration posed a threat to Europe, he stated his proposed solution:

Look at Israel, learn from Israel; Israel is an island in a sea of Islamic barbarism. Israel is a beacon of freedom and prosperity in a region of Islamic darkness. Israel refuses to be overrun by jihadists. So should we.”

The Israeli government is itself a contributor to the resurgence of far-right and ultranationalist politics worldwide. Netanyahu’s willingness to ally with ultra-rightist militarists and Islamophobic fanatics in his own cabinet make him a willing accomplice in an international far-right project to acquire ideological rehabilitation – a crucial step towards state power.

When ultra-rightist Islamophobic parties make common cause with Israel’s ongoing offensive against the Palestinians, they are not only making Israel’s fight their own, but are also making Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land into a global cause. By cleverly affixing the tag ‘clash of civilisations’ to Israel’s construction of settlements on and annexation of Palestinian territory, the far-right’s ideology gains legitimacy among Israel’s supporters.

Creating an ethnic majoritarian nationalism on the ground in the Palestinian territories is a shining example of how the ultranationalist right intends to carve out a ‘cleansed’ whites-only majoritarian project on what it regards as its own turf. By applauding far-right bigotry under the guise of ‘countering Muslims’, the ultranationalist right is only emboldened to increase its attacks on all ethnic and religious minorities. There is an alternative course of action: rather than constructing alliances with far-right and white supremacist groups, Jews and Muslims can and must combine to fight the menace of bigotry and oppose the violence such hatred engenders.