Saturday, June 28, 2008

Words Not To Say; People Not To Speak To

Ah - the little ironies of life.

I was watching TV two weeks ago and saw Laura Bush speak of the need for "Palestine to be an independent state." Given the silence of President Bush on the topic during his visit to celebrate the birth of Israel, this was a welcome address.
What struck me is that the US State Department goes out of its way to forbid the use of words like "Palestine" and "occupied Palestinian Territories" from its documents and the writings of its contractors. And here comes the First Lady using one of these forbidden words. (Even PM Sharon himself had said that people should call the occupation for what it is.) If the agency in charge of implementing US Foreign Policy is not allowed to use simple words, which Israel and the First Lady find natural to use, what does it tell us about dogma and rhetoric in how we conduct our affairs? And how long can even a super-power remain relevant when it becomes tied to rhetoric rather than reality?

Then last week Israel revealed it had negotiated a truce with Hamas which is effectively ruling over Gaza. Well, to me that makes plenty of sense for the two sides. Gazans could do with a weekend without someone getting killed; they might enjoy some cement and gasoline to start rebuilding and trying to kick-start a dead economy; and Israel's Southern districts might enjoy some time without the fear of some dumb rocket falling from the sky, with the risk that it might hit someone. But here is the irony: The US is threatening with sanctions and retaliation anyone who speaks with Hamas. Will that apply to Israel? Of course not. If it's OK for Israel to talk with Hamas, why is it not for others? And--here comes the serious question--it certainly makes sense to talk to Hamas if it stops the rockets over Israel; but in that case wouldn't it have made greater sense to talk to Hamas in 2006 after it had stopped violent action of its own free will, in order to join a democratic political process? What message has "the West" given to a somewhat confused and strifing Muslim world? 'Engage in democracy, we will shun you and reduce you to dust; but shoot rockets at us, we will talk to you.'

I'm not one to look naively on Muslim Fundamentalism, but maybe when our dogma reduces us to a language of violence, we become stuck with only understanding a language of violence ourselves. It is great time we talk, and maybe learn to hear the voices of people a little quicker than we hear the voice of powder.

Opponents of dialogue always point back to Münich, when Chamberlain talked to Hitler, signed a treaty, came home stating he had 'secured peace for our time,' only to have Hitler invade Poland immediately after that. The lesson is always: "don't talk too much and try to appease evil; shoot first!" The problem with that historical shortcut is that it misses the point. Certainly taking Hitler at face value was a big mistake, but not hearing and not talking to the German people being squeezed into misery between the two world wars was probably the original mistake. Fortunately, in 1945 the US having led the liberation of the free world chose a different strategy and led the development of Germany and Western Europe. After WWI, the agenda was 'make the Germans pay' -- and it led us to a nightmare. After WWII, the agenda became the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, and investments not only in German economy, but also education, culture, the arts... Which course of action was better in the end? For Christians: which was more infused with Jesus' principles of forgiveness, love of enemies, grace and charity?

So--who we talk to, what we can say: how is that working out for us today?


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