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Navigating the storm of news: how the ‘Angel of History’ can help us remember our humanity when faced with global conflict

In recent weeks, it has been hard not to be overwhelmed by the news. The deluge of stories – from war, natural disasters, pandemics – has become so loud it seems safer for our mental health to turn away from such trauma. But when images of dead children in Gaza or bombed cities in Ukraine merge with our social media feeds alongside tips on how to grow healthy houseplants or videos of kittens falling over, not only can you not ignore the violence of the world, it risks being normalised. Even, when juxtaposed against fripperies of cute videos and viral posts, of tipping over into becoming a dark form of news-entertainment.

The weight of such news cannot be underestimated. The United Nations said this week more than 10,000 civilians had been killed in Ukraine so far, with far more likely to be recorded, especially in the occupied territories. The Hamas attacks in Israel last month killed some 1,200. Gaza has recorded more than 14,000 dead in Israel’s military counter-attack.

Globally, civilians killed from explosive violence around the world, according to English language media reports on specific incidents as captured by Action on Armed Violence (the charity I head up), has increased by 31% in the last 12 months compared to the year before that.

So what can we do when confronted by such unimaginable harm?

Many fall back on loyalties and hierarchies. Their own dead, or the dead they align with politically and culturally, are seen as more important than the other’s dead. This can be dangerous. Who is not memorialised, not recorded and not mourned for serves not just to embolden the memories of the ones we do grieve, but also endangers diminishing our own humanity when we overlook one atrocity in favour of another. And such diminishments seem very present at the moment, especially when it comes to Gaza and Israel.

On Israel’s side, this week, the Israeli ambassador at a UN Security Council meeting was warned to show ‘respect’ when he shamed the UN Women agency for not speaking up enough about Israeli women. A former Obama-era National Security Council official, Stuart Seldowitz, was arrested this week after shouting at a food vendor in New York that the killing of 4,000 children in Gaza “wasn’t enough”. The right-wing commentator Douglas Murray was widely condemned when, in the Jewish Chronicle, he wrote that Nazis were “rarely proud of their average days’ work” whereas Hamas killers “were elated”.

On the pro-Palestinian side, a Californian professor – Loay Alnaji – has been charged with the killing of Paul Kessler, a Jewish supporter in a rally. Actress Melissa Barrera has been sacked from an upcoming Scream film over what the film makers called ‘antisemitic’ social media posts. And Eylon Levy, the Israeli Government Spokesman, said on Sky News that ‘proportionality does not interest Palestinian supporters when they’re able to get more of their prisoners out’ – when asked why Israel was willing to hand over 150 Palestinian prisoners to get 50 of the hijacked Israelis in return.

Calls for moderation, balance and empathy on all sides have become quickly eviscerated in tweets, death threats and outrage. It’s so bad that merely stating: “the killing of hundreds of civilians by Hamas is terrible. And the killing of thousands of civilians by Israel is also terrible” seems insufficient for either side. Even the BBC’s own reporters are accusing the corporation of pro-Israeli bias.

How, then, to navigate this? 

As a conflict reporter who has worked in almost two dozen war zones and murder ‘hot spots’ around the world, I have had to develop a philosophy around such a concern: how to preserve humanity in the face of the contest over whose death is more terrible. And, for me, such an inspiration came from a surprising source: an angel in the heart of Israel.

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The museum staff had taken the picture out for me especially. Even then, when I walked into the room, it was hidden from my gaze, face up against the library wall. The harsh light of an Israeli sun was not good for it, the curator said; after all, it had been painted under the far more forgiving skies of Northern Europe. Normally, it was only on display a few months a year, the ‘Mona Lisa’ of the Israel Museum collections, but they had made an exception. The supervisor walked over and flipped the print around. The Swiss-German artist Paul Klee had painted it in 1920 and it showed an ugly bird-like creature in faded black and yellow and brown, staring out from the centre of mottled paper.

It was an angel, but not the fantastical, preening visions of Christian cliché – no luxuriant white wings or incandescent halo. Rather it was like a clockwork owl with nasty teeth and spindly legs, bulging eyes and a face of horror.

Klee had called it the ‘Angelus Novus’ (New Angel), but it was to be renamed ‘The Angel of History’ by its first owner, the German critic and Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. It had a major influence on him. In the angel’s fixed stare, open mouth and wide wings, Benjamin had seen history as an unceasing cycle of despair, a painful reflection of the epoch he was living in. In 1940, as German Jews were being herded into cattle carts and Europe was on its fast descent into chaos and tyranny, Benjamin was to see the angel’s face ‘turned toward the past’.

‘Where we perceive a chain of events,’ Benjamin wrote, ‘he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’

Today, my mind keeps coming back to that picture. Because, when confronted by the bodies and shattered lives left behind by air strikes and mass shootings, it is hard not to shake Benjamin’s description from your thoughts. Most cannot hold our gaze on the mountain of the dead the angel is forced to fixate upon. Most instead see a chain of events, and in those events, they choose between enemy and victim. 

For Israelis, many trace the horrors of the 7 October killings back to the piles of naked dead outside Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz, and from there back further to the pogroms of  20th Century Russia and Medieval Europe and before. For Palestinians, the current bombings are just one link in a bloody chain that tracks through the Nakbas – the name for the violent displacement of untold Palestinians – of 2000, 1987, 1967 and before and before. Whereas the Angel would see all, and be transfixed not by the cause but by the accumulation, in the Middle-East today, each side stands blind to the other’s fears and losses and traumas. 

Benjamin, a man who had also searched desperately in the past to find meaning to the present, tried to see it all. He was unable to do so and ended up killing himself on the French-Spanish border. But before his suicide, he was to write: ‘the only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.’

The question of course is: who is the enemy? Even in the case of Ukraine, where it seems to many Europeans the aggressor is clear – Vladimir Putin stands guilty – there are plenty online who support Russia. In the case of Israel and Gaza, the lack of consensus vibrates with a terrible intensity. 

How far back in history should we go to define who started this? The British political meddling in the region? The European assault on the Jews? In the end, perhaps the real enemy is any belief that violence itself can heal these ancient and modern wounds and bring back the dead. It cannot.

What the angel says to us is that, when we talk about progress and peace, we should do it with open eyes and hearts and minds. That accepting no side will win in this terrible war, and that the only way for this conflict – perhaps all conflicts – to cease is to accept that the real enemy, in the end, is our own very real and very terrible capacity for hate.