Faced with war across Europe, nineteenth century poet William Wordsworth asked, ‘What a fair world were ours for verse to paint, if Power could live at ease with self-restraint?’ He was following sixteenth century John Donne’s recognition of human interdependence, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…’

Contemporary poets have painted a similar vision. In ‘All One Race’ Australian Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Nunucaal declared, ‘I’m international, never mind place, I’m for humanity all one race.’ In ‘Human Family’, Afro-American Maya Angelou wrote, ’I note the obvious differences, between each sort and type, but we are more alike my friends than we are unalike.’

In ‘Time for Outrage’, an architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the French poet and diplomat Stephane Hessel asked citizens to protect the ideals inherent in the notion, a common humanity. He insisted, ‘Anyone who is not outraged by injustice loses touch with their own humanity.’

In her comments on the disdain for humanity shown by brutalities in Gaza, Palestinian novelist Susan Abulhawa has summarised Palestinian deaths and destruction as ‘war, genocide. holocaust.’ Author Max Blumenthal calls Gaza ‘The Trail of Tears’ of our time.

From these poets’ visions, from each author’s advocacy, qualities of a common humanity become glaringly obvious: recognition of the interdependence of all people, a life enhancing use of power, respect for everyone’s dignity, courage to oppose injustice whatever the costs.

My dismay at the hell of Gaza, ‘an inferno teeming with innocents’ says Abulhawa, has been made worse by the absence of serious commentary about a common humanity. Instead, politicians and their advisers have calculated the level of killing which might be tolerated, have judged whether criticism of a war would be dubbed anti-Semitic, weighed whether arms sales to Israel could be coupled to claims about a ceasefire, and whether condemnation of Hamas has been sufficiently loud.

When considering the Hamas murders on 7 October and the subsequent Israeli killing of 31,000 Palestinians, two thirds women and children, I have learned as much about humanity by observing cowardice as by counting courage. This sad irony occurred when listening to certain individuals’ reasons for refusing to support a ‘Gaza Plea for a Common Humanity’ to be presented to the Australian Federal Parliament on Thursday 28 March.

The Plea argues that respect for a common humanity would outlaw violence and could contribute to peace with justice to benefit Israelis and Palestinians. The Plea included criticism of policies to cease humanitarian aid to Gaza, wondered why powerful governments refused to support South Africa before the International Court of Justice, why governments stayed silent about the ICJ’s interim findings about genocide in Gaza.

From all walks of life, over one thousand citizens responded to this Plea for Gaza. They said, ‘Count me in’, but their enthusiasm was offsets by those who refused to support the Plea, their decisions apparently fueled by fear and cowardice.

Refusals came in several forms, beginning with the avoidance technique, not wanting to know, not replying to texts, phone calls or emails.

Then came quibbling about the prose in the Plea. One quibbler asked ‘can you be more nuanced in the opening paragraph.’ Another requested, ‘I’d sign if you made it shorter and said more about Hamas.’

Perhaps meant to be helpful, nevertheless these responses looked like means of ducking for cover, refusing to protest openly the carnage in Gaza.

Some refusers acknowledged their fear of offending supporters of Israel, a point made by one high profile respondent who said he could not afford to be damned by the ‘you know who lobby.’

I was astounded by those whom I thought knew something about justice but who feared to support a Plea because it had been written mostly by ‘a consistent critic of Israeli policies.’ The common humanity argument failed to impress. They feared to take what they thought was a risk.

First prize in the cowardice stakes must go to individuals, including leaders of public institutions who said they might support the Plea if they knew which other significant people were supporters. Such a response suggested that the principle, to have the courage of your convictions, was unknown, or in relation to controversy over the carnage in Gaza, should be discarded.

However disappointing, the conduct of the refusers can be accepted as their right, yet to maintain stamina for any struggle for justice, it’s the common humanity pleas of philosophers, poets and gutsy local activists which gives hope through rewarding examples of courage in public life.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt taught that anyone who wanted to address the goals of a common good would have to make the transition from the private to the public realm. In contrast to any preoccupation with the necessities of a private life, she contended that commitment to a common humanity would be the means of staying relevant and alive.

Although the Gaza Plea for a Common Humanity encourages the philosophy, language and practice of non-violence as the means of crafting peace for Palestine and Israel, it also considers evidence about terrorist violence by Israeli forces not just by Hamas.

This Plea appeals to the moral fibre needed to express outrage at plans to shift over a million people in Rafah so that a supposed extermination of Hamas can continue, but it also acknowledges the fear of the sixteen-year-old Gazan girl who told BBC World on 18 March 18, ‘The only solution is to die, to give up to death.’

What price humanity if that frightened teenager’s fate is of little consequence?

Enthusiasm for a common humanity imagines a future that was not there before. In rejection of oppression and colonisation, it advocates courage to achieve freedoms. In the spirit of poet John Donne, inclusiveness means justice for Palestinians but also world solidarity in the face of poverty, ecological disasters and pandemics.

In any context, language to paint images can give hope or at least show the extent of inhumanities.

Response to atrocities in Gaza must say it is time to stop the quibbling over words, time to overcome fearfulness, to stand up and be counted, time to discover universal benefits from displaying the courage of convictions.

Reasons for making a ‘Gaza Plea for a Common Humanity’ have world-wide implications. They occurred in opposition to violence whether by Hamas or the Israeli military, but refer in particular to the wholesale destruction of Palestinians’ lives.

Reasons to plead for a common humanity have also been bolstered by the courage of Russians who gathered around the grave of Alexei Navalny.

Stuart Rees

Stuart Rees AM is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney & recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.