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Richard The Lionheart Fights For Israel

Statues and place names are important cultural and ideological markers. They announce in bronze or in typeface who you are and what you stand for. They have, usefully and provocatively, been taking a bit of a beating lately as statues to slavers, agents of empire and despots have been daubed in red paint, toppled and even tossed into the sea. This was the fate of statues to slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, horse-mounted confederate generals in the USA, and Captain Cook here in New Zealand. The carnage being inflicted on people in the Middle East today, including Gaza, should see more totems tumble as populations come to terms with past and present crimes.

Richard Coeur de Lion, the symbolic epitome of everything the English speaking world represents, stands unmolested outside the British House of Parliament. It is a magnificent statue of the great King of England (1189-1199). His sword held high, his chest thrust forward, the Lionheart sits astride a steed rampant. He is heading into battle and woe betide any darkie who stands in his way. It is an image to stir the heart of every Englishman. He is the bronze embodiment of 800 years of British violence and mythmaking.

When he took Acre (Akko), in present-day Israel, in 1191, he beheaded 2,000 muslim prisoners. Chopped their heads off. And they raised a statue to the man. The great Muslim leader Saladin hadn’t been quick enough to pay a ransom – which involved handing over The True Cross (religion), 100,000 gold pieces (loot) and exchanging hostages.

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It is what we do in the West: invade, murder, plunder and then romanticise ourselves as heroes. I didn’t know this story when I had an excellent hummus meal in a Palestinian restaurant in Akko, then wandered around the Crusader fort.

In 1917 when the British, including ANZAC forces, took Jerusalem (and went on to commit massacres against innocent Palestinians), a drawing appeared in Punch Magazine under the title “The Last Crusade”. The ever-magnificent Richard the Lionheart was depicted looking down on Jerusalem, declaring: “My dream comes true.” His dream was the start of a nightmare for the Palestinian people, lasting a century and counting; the Balfour Declaration being inked that same year.

Decades later, the Muslim world, many will recall, was appalled and put on notice when George W Bush announced a Crusade in 2001. In what the Wall Street Journal ridiculously called an “indelicate gaffe”, Bush messianically vowed to "rid the world of evil-doers … This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while."

The Afghans and Iraqis knew what they were in for - and they got it. Hundreds of thousands dead. No apologies from the UK or USA. Decades later America and the Europeans are still up to their elbows in the blood of innocents and we stand on the edge of a greater war.

Back to statues and placenames. What sort of demented racists would name a key international institution after someone who had committed massive crimes against humanity? The Europeans. Yes, the home of the European Parliament – the campus of buildings that houses the parliament – is officially called L’Espace Léopold (Leopoldruimte, in Dutch). The eponymous Leopold is King Leopold II (d.1909), the robber baron whose forces raped the Belgian Congo and ran a terror regime in which hundreds of thousands of Congolese were maimed – typically cutting a hand off – to ensure the Europeans enjoyed untroubled access to that country’s resources. Somewhere between five and ten million Congolese died - igniting an international campaign led by Mark Twain, Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad.

It tells you a lot about how far the Europeans have come in a century that it didn’t cross their minds that naming the mother ship of Europe after a genocidal, kleptocratic racist was both deeply offensive and deeply revealing.

Belgium’s repellent elites have over generations erected statues to Leopold II - yes, on a horse, of course - with Africans looking up in imagined love and fawning awe at the noble gentleman. In 2004 a group of Belgian activists removed the hand of one of the Congolese bronze figures, thereby reigniting a debate about the country’s colonial crimes and lack of compensation.

Thanks to its support (bombs, bullets, shells) for the genocide in Palestine, the Germans are also having a spotlight shone on them – for what has been called the first genocide of the 20th Century: the destruction of the Heroro and Nama people in Namibia, two indigenous populations who had the temerity to challenge the Kaiser and his ubermenschen.

There is a statue of General von Trotha, the commander who, as the Germans like to put it, “pacified the natives” in 1904. You guessed it, he’s sitting on yet another bloody horse, holding a rifle. Like the Israelis today, the Germans deprived the Herero and Nama of food and water, massacred them without concern for women or children, and drove the survivors into the desert to die. Germans who profess shame for their second set of genocides (including The Holocaust) seem in denial about this one: a bust to von Trotha graces a German military barracks in Hamburg today. No adequate compensation, no formal recognition. Now the Germans are on to their next genocide: supporting Israel.

It’s high time the Europeans and Americans climb down from their high horses. Let’s melt down all the statues of the American generals, the degenerate kings and the projects that shame our species. Let us correct histories, educate our children and grandchildren, and cast better statues that show the truth, honour the true heroes, commemorate the victims and the spirit of resistance. Let us cast a statue to the heroic Yemeni people who stand resilient in defiance of the Saudis, the Western powers and Israel. Let us revive in bronze the victims of the Palestinian Nakba and celebrate the enduring determination of the people of the West Bank and Gaza who have dared to dream that they have the right to thrive politically, culturally and economically.

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