Why are there so few brown and black faces in ‘Dunkirk’?

Soldiers from the French African colonies holding a position at Boucle du Doubs, near Besancon, France, winter of 1944.

135,000 Senegalese troops fought in Europe during World War I and over 30,000 died. De Gaulle’s Free French Army in World War II was largely composed of troops from the French colonial empire, including conscripts and volunteers from among the colonized populations. The Nazis executed several thousand French colonial POWs from Africa, driven by their racial animus towards black peoples.

Over a million Indian troops served overseas during World War I. Undivided India (most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) was part of the British Empire at the time. During World War II, the Indian Army expanded to include 2.5 million troops in uniform. The bulk of the force was deployed in Asia to stop the Japanese advance into Burma, but numerous divisions served in the Middle East, Africa and in Europe. Six of the fourteen Allied divisions in North Africa were from the Indian army.

So why are there so few black and brown faces in the new movie about Dunkirk?

In the film, we see at least one French soldier who might be African. In fact, soldiers from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere were key to delaying the German attack. Other African soldiers made it to England and helped form the nucleus of the Free French forces that soon took the fight to the Axis.

There were also four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps on those beaches. Observers said they were particularly cool under fire and well-organized during the retreat. They weren’t large in number, maybe a few hundred among hundreds of thousands, but their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war. Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.

— www.slate.com/…

Sunny Singh, writing in the Guardian writes that these omissions have a broader impact. White-washing the two world wars (and colonial history more generally) aids right-wing ethno-nationalists by erasing the sacrifices other peoples made to ensure French, British and American freedoms.

[…] it erases the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, which were not only on the beach, but tasked with transporting supplies over terrain that was inaccessible for the British Expeditionary Force’s motorised transport companies. It also ignores the fact that by 1938, lascars – mostly from South Asia and East Africa – counted for one of four crewmen on British merchant vessels, and thus participated in large numbers in the evacuation.  […]

A vast, all-white production such as Nolan’s Dunkirk is not an accident. Such a big budget film is a product of many hundreds of small and large decisions in casting, production, directing and editing. Perhaps Nolan chose to follow the example of the original allies in the second world war who staged a white-only liberation of Paris even though 65% of the Free French Army troops were from West Africa. […]

Why is it so important that the covering fire be provided by white French troops rather than North African and Middle Eastern ones? Those non-white faces I mentioned earlier – they were French troops scrabbling to board British boats to escape. The echoes of modern politics are easy to see in the British-first policy of the initial retreat that left French troops at the mercy of the Nazis. In reality, non-white troops were at the back of the queue for evacuation, and far more likely to be caught and murdered by Nazi soldiers than their white colleagues who were able to blend into the crowd.

— www.theguardian.com/…

Oh, and that insistence on a whites-only liberation force for Paris? It was part of a policy called ‘blanchiment’, literally “whitening” of the liberating units.

In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.

“This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”

At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war. […]

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish. […]

For France’s West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate. Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes’ welcome in Paris.

— news.bbc.co.uk/…

@subirgrewal | Cross-posted at NotMeUs.org & TheProgressiveWing.com

Tony Judt knew the two-state plan was dead. In 2003.

As I caught up on the news reports and pundit pronouncements on Israel’s election this week, I realized there was one voice I was missing. True, there was very little coverage of the views of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They have a lot at stake in this election, but we don’t really hear a lot from them. But it was Tony Judt I was missing. So I went back and read some of his older articles. They are so perceptive and spot on, that they deserve to be shared here.

From The NY Review of Books (October 2003) Israel: The Alternative

The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate. Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the “road map.” The President of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: “It’s all Arafat’s fault.” Israelis themselves grimly await the next bomber. Palestinian Arabs, corralled into shrinking Bantustans, subsist on EU handouts. On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the end of the road? What is to be done?

The situation of Israel is not desperate, but it may be close to hopeless. Suicide bombers will never bring down the Israeli state, and the Palestinians have no other weapons. There are indeed Arab radicals who will not rest until every Jew is pushed into the Mediterranean, but they represent no strategic threat to Israel, and the Israeli military knows it. What sensible Israelis fear much more than Hamas or the al-Aqsa Brigade is the steady emergence of an Arab majority in “Greater Israel,” and above all the erosion of the political culture and civic morale of their society. As the prominent Labor politician Avraham Burg recently wrote, “After two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonial state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality.” Unless something changes, Israel in half a decade will be neither Jewish nor democratic.

Israeli liberals and moderate Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting that the only hope was for Israel to dismantle nearly all the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable, terrorist-free Palestinian state underwritten (and constrained) by Western and international agencies. This is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution.But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the “road map” says, the real map is the one on the ground, and that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no one I know believes it will happen

For many years, Israel had a special meaning for the Jewish people. After 1948 it took in hundreds of thousands of helpless survivors who had nowhere else to go; without Israel their condition would have been desperate in the extreme. Israel needed Jews, and Jews needed Israel. The circumstances of its birth have thus bound Israel’s identity inextricably to the Shoah, the German project to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border.5 A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.

The Jerusalem Post while reporting his death took the opportunity to respond to the essay: So Farewell Then Tony Judt. Since Tablet seems to be the “new media” go to site for apologists of the occupation, here’s their take: Tony Judt is Aging Poorly. Both make the point that the Middle East is littered with ethno-centric states, so Israel shouldn’t be singled out for fitting into the neighborhood. That really isn’t a critique of Tony Judt (because he said the same thing. Rather it confirms his critics do not place the same value on universal human rights that he did (i.e. their view is unshakably tribal). *From a July 2010 interview in The Atlantic Tony Judt’s Final Word on Israel

But what happens in small West Bank towns, in the Israeli Parliament, in Gazan schools or in Lebanese farms is invisible to the world. And Israel was always very good at presenting the argument from “self-defense” even when it was absurd. I think that Israel’s successful defiance of international law for so long has made Jerusalem blind and deaf to the seriousness with which the rest of the world takes the matter.

There is a partner. It may not be very nice and it may not be very easy. It’s called Hamas. In the same way the provisional [Irish Republican Army] was the only realistic “partner for peace” with whom London could negotiate; Nelson Mandela (a “terrorist” for the Afrikaaners until his release) was the only realistic “partner for peace”; the same was true of “that terrorist” ([according to Winston] Churchill) Gandhi; the well-known “murderous terrorist” Jomo Kenyatta with whom London fought a murderous war for five years before he became “a great statesman”; not to mention Algeria. The irony is that Washington knows this perfectly well and expects negotiations with Hamas within five years. After all, Israel virtually invented Hamas in the hope of undermining the PLO; well, they succeeded. But they are the only ones who can’t see what has to happen.

In such a state, Jews would soon be a minority. Doesn’t that frighten you?Not as much as it seems to frighten others. Why is it ok for a Jewish minority to dominate an Arab majority, its leaders to call for expulsions of majority members, etc., but not ok for a democracy to have a majority and minority both protected under law? At least Israel could then call itself a democracy with a clear conscience.

What you are really asking is whether I think the Palestinians would immediately set out to rape, pillage and murder the Jews? I don’t see why they would want to — there is no historical record suggesting that this is what Palestinians do for fun, whereas we have all too much evidence that Israelis persecute Palestinians for no good reason. If I were an Arab, I would be more afraid of living in a state with Jews just now.

Can you see or understand why Israelis are afraid?

Yes, but only in the sense that someone who has been brought up to fear and hate his neighbors will have good reason to be frightened at the thought of living in the same house with them. Israelis have created a generation of young Palestinians who hate them and will never forgive them and that does make a real problem for any future agreement, single- or two-state.

But Israel should be much, much more afraid of the Israel it’s creating for itself: a semi-democratic, demagogic, far-right warrior state dominated by racist Russians and crazed rabbis. In this perspective, an internationally policed and guaranteed federal state of Israel, with the same rights and resources for Jews and Arabs, looks a lot less frightening to me.

From the NY Times Op-Ed (June 2010) Israel Without Cliches

“Democracy” is no guarantee of good behavior: most countries today are formally democratic — remember Eastern Europe’s “popular democracies.” Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that “democracies don’t make war.” It is a democracy dominated and often governed by former professional soldiers: this alone distinguishes it from other advanced countries. And we should not forget that Gaza is another “democracy” in the Middle East: it was precisely because Hamas won free elections there in 2005 that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel reacted with such vehemence.

But there is. As American officials privately acknowledge, sooner or later Israel (or someone) will have to talk to Hamas. From French Algeria through South Africa to the Provisional I.R.A., the story repeats itself: the dominant power denies the legitimacy of the “terrorists,” thereby strengthening their hand; then it secretly negotiates with them; finally, it concedes power, independence or a place at the table. Israel will negotiate with Hamas: the only question is why not now.

But since 1967 it has been Israel that has missed most opportunities: a 40-year occupation (against the advice of its own elder statesmen); three catastrophic invasions of Lebanon; an invasion and blockade of Gaza in the teeth of world opinion; and now a botched attack on civilians in international waters. Palestinians would be hard put to match such cumulative blunders.

For anyone interested in Europe, Judt’s book Postwar is at once thrilling, enlightening and beautiful. Essential reading, if you have anything to do with Europe. If you’re on the left, he was one of the most articulate voices for measured social democracy and a very nuanced view of the welfare state. There is a nice remembrance in the Times’ review of his essay collection (published posthumously): When the Facts ChangeGrab bag of links:

– NY Times Obituary (2010): http://www.nytimes.com/…
– FT Op-Ed – Israel must unpick its ethnic myth (2009): http://www.ft.com/…
– Lunch with the FT (2007): http://www.ft.com/…
– FT’s Review of When the Facts Change (2015): http://www.ft.com/…
– Dialog with his son about Obama’s election (2010): http://www.nytimes.com/…
– Andrew Sullivan remembers Tony Judt (2014): http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/…

I regret not having taken one of his classes while I had a chance.

* In any case, the Kurds and Azeris are in a similar sort of position as the Palestinians in certain countries.

Though he would be loathe to say it, in a very real sense Tony Judt belonged to the trans-national tribe of professionals he once called clerks who inhabit international airports. Their paper of choice is the Financial Times.

The FT’s take on the Israeli election is captured in Bibi’s triumph and the challenge for Obama

Mr Netanyahu now appears to have rejected negotiations. In those circumstances, and without a halt to Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank, the US cannot credibly maintain its veto on Palestinian statehood. Washington should reconsider its position if and when the Palestinians resume their bid at the UN.

Israel’s tribal impasse behind Netanyahu’s dramatic victory

So the first piece of clarity to emerge from this result is for Palestinian citizens living in Israel proper: the message is one of continued marginalisation. It was brought home powerfully by Mr Netanyahu himself, warning in an election-day video that droves of Arabs were descending on the polls and had to be counterbalanced. Remember, this is a prime minister talking about his own citizens exercising their most basic democratic right. Just imagine if such a comment were made by a European leader about Jewish or black voters.

And finally, their perceptive analysis of the maneuvering that has commenced to form a coalition: Kahlon holds key to Netanyahu coalition