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Israel-Hamas war: the courageous leadership that might solve this most intractable of problems

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Amidst the horror of the Israel-Hamas war Graham Tomlin recalls the revolutionary leaders who were prepared to take the bold path away from violence and bloodshed.
People walk across the rubble beside a recently bombed building.
Residents of Gaza City walk past a recently bombed building.

How can you say something sensible about the horror that has unfolded in Gaza and southern Israel over past weeks? The actions of Hamas were deplorable. Whatever the perceived justice of a cause, using rape as a weapon of war, kidnapping and killing babies and children, parading terrified kids as trophies of war in a pre-meditated campaign is abhorrent and indefensible. However sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, surely no-one who can imagine the terror felt by teenagers taken hostage, parents fearing what is happening to their children, or the notion of cutting the head off a fellow-human being can celebrate the actions taken by Hamas. The irony of western liberals expressing loud support for Hamas, an Islamist group that is fundamentally opposed to all the ideals of western liberalism is a strange quirk of our confused contemporary moral life. 

Of course, these developments need to be seen in the light of the long-running hostility between Palestinians and Israelis, and their supporters elsewhere in the world. The issue cuts right along the already existing fissure of the culture wars, with those on the left generally supporting the Palestinians, sometimes veering into outright anti-Semitism, as the Labour party has discovered, and those on the right supporting Israel, sometimes veering into uncritical support of any action by the current Israeli government – a concession few would offer to any other national government worldwide. 

The result is a depressingly familiar pattern. Over the coming weeks and months, the people of Gaza will probably endure constant bombardment, food and power shortages, most likely a ground attack, death, destruction and huge suffering. The infrastructure of the enclave will be destroyed yet again, although more severely this time, leaving the problem of rebuilding hospitals, schools, houses, sewage systems that take years to construct. The people who suffer, like the Israelis who have had loved ones cruelly taken from them, will be the ordinary people of Gaza. It may lead to the satisfaction of having punished the perpetrators, but will leave behind a legacy of continued hatred and resentment of Israel that will only erupt again in a decade or so’s time. 

The idea that Nelson Mandela would one day wear a Springbok rugby shirt, the symbol of the oppressor, was unthinkable for the young ANC activist – as unthinkable as an Israeli Prime Minister wearing an Arab keffiyeh, or an Arab leader waving an Israeli flag.

Successive world leaders, American Presidents and international commissions have tried to solve this most intractable of global problems. And failed.  

Yet other seemingly intractable problems have managed to find a way forward. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland haven’t gone away but the violence that accompanied them has largely ceased. Racial inequalities in South Africa remain, but apartheid as a policy is discredited, and again, the threat of violence has diminished.  

The common denominator in these places where deep divisions have found some resolution, is a new, re-imagined and bold leadership - on both sides of each dispute. It required a willingness to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. In South Africa it was the courageous and mould-breaking leadership offered by both Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Both did things unimaginable in their respective camps beforehand. The idea that Nelson Mandela would one day wear a Springbok rugby shirt, the symbol of the oppressor, was unthinkable for the young ANC activist – as unthinkable as an Israeli Prime Minister wearing an Arab keffiyeh, or an Arab leader waving an Israeli flag. The idea that FW de Klerk would dismantle apartheid, free Mandela and fully back an election that he was likely to lose to the ANC was again inconceivable when he took power as Prime Minister in 1989. 

Similarly in Northern Ireland, the idea of Ian Paisley the embodiment of Protestant ‘No Surrender’ and Martin McGuiness, second in command of the IRA in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, shaking hands and sharing power was literally unimaginable when the troubles were at their height. These were all flawed men, each with some measure of blame for the suffering involved in their countries, yet who saw a better way and had the courage to take it.

Israeli soldiers console each other while searching a home attacked by Hamas.

Two soliders console each other as they search a house that has been ransacked.
Israeli soldiers console each other while searching a house attacked by Hamas.

As is often observed, if the Palestinians had had wiser leaders, there might have been an independent Palestinian state years ago.

Of course, these very public gestures of reconciliation took years of careful negotiation and sensitive diplomacy to achieve. Yet they happened. And they happened because these leaders gradually recognised that the path they were walking down would only lead to ongoing mutual destruction, continued conflict and suffering. As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  

This is what has been lacking in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian people have been badly let down by the ineffectiveness and corruption of Fatah, and the senseless Islamist terror of Hamas, exploiting the understandable sense of injustice in Gaza in particular for violent ends. Hindsight is a great thing, but if the Palestinians had had wiser leaders, there might have been an independent Palestinian state years ago, whether through the UN Partition Plan in 1947, which offered 46 per cent of the land to an Arab state, in the 1990s through the Oslo Accords or other opportunities in between.  

On the Israeli side in recent years, Prime Ministers like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have played on the (to be fair, often justified) fear of Israelis, to offer themselves as the security candidates who can keep Israel safe by building a wall or enact tight border controls around Palestinian communities, restricting their movement, as if long-standing Palestinian resentment at the loss of their land will just go away one day if you keep the pressure on long enough. 

If his vision of Zionism had won out over the more aggressive version of David Ben Gurion, might this long history of conflict have been avoided? 

There have been glimmers of hope. In the lead up to the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, the Zionist philosopher and politician Martin Buber argued for the right of Jews for a homeland, yet also believed the moral test of that homeland was going to be the way they would treat their Arab neighbours. For him, the call on the new Jewish state was bigger than just to provide a safe place for Jews to live, but, in alignment with the Old Testament call on the people of Israel, was to be a blessing to the nations. As he wrote in his visionary book A Land of Two Peoples:  

“A true Zionist wants not to rule over his Arab brothers but to serve together with them.”  

If his vision of Zionism had won out over the more aggressive version of David Ben Gurion, might this long history of conflict have been avoided? 

In the 1980s, Anwar Sadat moved from being the leader of Egypt’s attack on Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 to the architect of a ground-breaking peace treaty with Menachem Begin, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time. Later still, the Oslo Accords of the 1990s offered the possibility of a resolution – land for peace. Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn, as hopes began to rise of a new dawn for the Middle East.  

Yet in both cases it cost these leaders their lives. Sadat’s assassination by an Islamic extremist in 1981, Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish militant in 1995 and the subsequent refusal of both sides to build on these delicate beginnings effectively put an end to the fragile hopes for peace. 

Over many visits to that extraordinary land, I have experienced two communities with much in common, living alongside one another, yet with little direct interaction, and often living in fear of the other. Many Jews believe all Arabs want to kill them. Many Gazans think all Israelis want them dead. Of course, some do on both sides, but most people simply want to live in peace without the threat of explosions or being killed, or home demolitions and feeling like second class citizens. 

If I have a prayer for the land of Israel/Palestine, it is for bold, imaginative leaders. There was once such a Jewish leader in Israel. There were at the time, as now, fights over who really owned the land - the Jewish people with their roots in the story of Abraham, Moses and King David or the Gentile Roman empire, with might on their side. The question of how should you deal with your enemy was a live one. Different Jewish groups argued that you should hate the Gentile enemy and kill them (the Zealots), blend in with them (the Herodians), avoid any contact with them (the Pharisees), or feel superior to them (the Sadducees). Jesus of Nazareth came up with the crazy idea that you should love them and pray for them, and thus be true children of the God who made both you and your enemy. 

Unrealistic? Maybe. And also today, perhaps much too early to talk about such a thing when emotions are so raw. Such a call doesn't deny Israel’s right to reasonable self-defence and the Palestinian right to legitimate protest. But this was the basic idea that lay behind the revolutionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley. Here were leaders who were prepared to take the bold path away from violence and bloodshed.  

In each case, it took leaders on both sides to find a way forward. A commitment to such a path on one side alone is not enough. If that is all you have then you get killed, just as Jesus did. And of course, such a path does not avoid the possibility of suffering and even death, as both Sadat and Rabin found out. Yet, in the strange mystery of God’s working, even that - especially that - was the path to peace.  

In the depressing cycle of hatred and death, the grieving families of Israel and Gaza, the weeping sons and daughters of Isaac and Ishmael, we can only pray for new leaders who will walk the difficult yet fruitful path of making enemies into friends. 


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4 min read

Benefiting from the many facets of beauty

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

A jewellery start-up is challenging what Belle TIndall perceives as empowerment and agency.
Three women stand, two lean into each other sharing a joke, while the other laughs too.
Members of Zena's Launch Pad team, Kamuli, Uganda.

I have a conundrum. I’ve started and re-started this article four times now. And I’m surprised that I’ve settled on this opening. But alas, I have a deadline to adhere to and a cold coffee to warm back up. So, this will have to do. I’m struggling with this opening paragraph because when it comes to writing about Zena - the female-led, non-profit, environmentally friendly jewellery and accessory brand - I simply do not know where to begin.  

There are too many facets of Zena that deserve to sit front and centre in this article; too many details to revel in, too many stories to tell, too much success to pick at and analyse.  

Where do I possibly start?   

How about with the delightful fact that the brand is named after a beloved pet goat who makes appearances on their TikTok? You know, kick things off on an endearing note. Or perhaps the fact that there are playlists curated for all occasions, dance challenges, and even a recipe for tequila lollipops on their website? That would certainly alert people to how seriously this team takes the art of having fun. Or maybe I should open with the fact that they’ve both challenged and refined how I perceive empowerment and agency. I could explain how they have alerted me to the importance of investing in female entrepreneurs as a means of tackling extreme poverty and profound gender inequality.  

Yes. I think that’s it. Let’s start there and work our way backwards, shall we?  

These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction. 

In which case, here’s the heartbeat of Zena, here’s what you need to know in order to understand everything else about them: women living in rural poverty are currently facing two major barriers when it comes to business opportunity and entrepreneurship, and Zena are tackling both head on.  

Firstly, female entrepreneurs in these settings have little to no capital with which to launch their business ventures. To combat this, every single product offered by Zena, whose HQ is in Kamuli (Uganda), is hand-crafted by women who were previously living below the poverty line. Through the Zena apprenticeships, these women are able to support themselves and their families while also earning/saving the capital they need to launch their own businesses once the short-term apprenticeship comes to an end. These women are not beneficiaries, they are benefactors – and that’s an important, not to mention beautiful, distinction.  

Secondly, as well as a lack of capital, these women are battling a lack of education. And so, through a multi-phase entrepreneurship programme (The Zena Launch Pad), Zena are giving their apprentices both the theoretical and practical tools that they need to launch and sustain their own businesses. Women are graduating from this programme with literacy and numeracy skills, a viable business plan, industry-specific knowledge and skills, as well as leadership and development.  

Because here’s the bottom-line, the foundation upon which Zena stands, the deep conviction of both Caragh and Loren, the co-founders and CEOs; agency matters. Widening one’s understanding of success to encompass these women’s agency, for better or for worse, matters. Empowering these women to earn their own capital, to see the unfolding of their own ideas, to know that their decisions matter, it makes all the difference. No dependence, no hand-outs, and no debt. Just the kind of empowerment that is laced with agency.  

It’s bold. But it’s working.  

There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation.

So far, time-stamped at this moment in time, Zena’s hybrid and holistic approach has led to 67 female entrepreneurs, over 150 children in school, and nearly 500 lives lived above the poverty line. Women are hiring other women, businesses are birthing more businesses, education is generating more education.  

Pretty special, isn’t it? Pretty Jesus-like too.  

I had the immense joy of chatting to Caragh, one of the co-founders and CEOs of Zena; she reminded me that multiplication is one of Jesus’ most classic moves. Just as the people sitting around Jesus with wide eyes and numb backsides witnessed one humble lunch feed tens-of-thousands of mouths, so are Caragh and her team witnessing jaw-dropping multiplication happen before their very eyes. There was utter delight in her eyes when she explained how good generates more good and creation generates more creation. Compassion is contagious and innovation spreads. Although Zena is by no means an enterprise that squeezes itself into a religious box (empowering women of all faiths and none), it is easy to see how Caragh and Loren’s faith in a God who wrote generative goodness into the fabric of reality, informs their mission to write it into their business model.  

Something else that is woven into the DNA of Zena, much to my delight, is an unabashed celebration of the female consumer. 2023 may well be remembered as the year when an economic earthquake was caused by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Barbie. According to Forbes, it is likely to be regarded as the year where people began to take seriously and analyse the power of 'the female dollar'. And Zena, with their penchant for all things pink and glittery, have been sitting ahead of the curve for a little while. Their products, as seen in Vogue, Marie Claire, and Harvey Nicholls (as well as embellishing the looks of numerous celebrities), seem to have been made with this cultural moment in sight. Their aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the resurgence of female playfulness and the reclaiming of ‘girliness’ as something to embrace and revel in. As I have already referenced, joy is something that this team take incredibly seriously.  

The celebration of women infiltrates every layer of Zena’s existence, that much is clear. While their products delight the female gaze, their profits sow into female entrepreneurship. Both of which display how working toward gender equality, particularly in contexts such as Kamuli, is a means by which we can wage a war on extreme poverty. 

Women serving women, who are serving women, who are serving women. And on it goes – so beautifully circular. So intriguingly God-inspired.  

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