Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Words of "War to the Death" in Palestine

This entry is for the next time you hear about tanks or shells in Gaza. Or Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem. It is about next time when there won't be 1,400 dead Palestinians and 5,000 wounded, but when there will be 14,000 dead and 50,000 wounded. Or more. It is about the next time we'll shrug it off as just a terribly sad thing that "we only wish someone could do something about," while really believing nothing can actually change.

This is about the words and thoughts which inhabit our readiness to accept war and justify death, particularly when it comes to Arab and Palestinian lives. It is somewhat about beliefs and explanatory models among some Jewish groups.* Not exclusively Jewish however.

[Now, I must immediately take a break and respond to a question before going any further: "What about the Israeli deaths? What about the words and thoughts which allow sending suicide bombers in pizzerias and shooting rockets indiscriminately at civilians?" I'll respond two things: 1- "What about" questions are rhetorical gimmicks and I don't respond to rhetorical questions. 2- On the more serious topic of protecting Jewish lives (actually any life) and facing the crimes of terrorism, yes it is important. It's simply not the topic of this particular post. Maybe one of these days I should write about my views of radical Islam, since I've written in favor of speaking to Hamas. Just not in this post. End of parenthesis.]

It started with a column I mentioned before ('Damned if they do but Israel's dead if they don't.' by Ralph Peters in the New York Post).** This column was circulated among US groups in support of the Gaza war. I just use it because it is illustrative of other papers, pieces and speeches. In fact, I've started reading and hearing similar thoughts in emails and in discussions with Israeli friends. I'm still under the shock of hearing 'normal' people in the 21st Century think that what the world needs is 'one more good war'.

I'll skip all the circular logic and implied warrants of arguments, which Peters fails to defend and just summarize what he tells us.

Claim #1- Peters tells us something about Israel, something about the world, and something about Arabs in general and/or Palestinians specifically.
  • Israel is by definition peaceful and the sole point of light in a dark Middle East.
  • The world is, continues to be, and will always be fundamentally antisemitic (a.k.a. anti-Jewish). Nothing has changed since 1933.
  • Palestinians are illegitimate in their identity and in their claims and -- the two themes are used interchangeably -- Arabs and Muslims are untrustworthy, dangerous, lesser people, with a single dedication to killing Jews.
Those are presented as self-evident facts, the premise upon which today's history pages unfold. They are the assumptions which allow to judge any event intelligently. If it were just propaganda and rhetoric, this would be one thing. I don't know Peters, I have no idea who he is, but what scares me is that I meet more and more people who actually think that way.

Claim #2- Peters tells us two things about how to judge the events which were unfolding in Gaza:
  • Violence against Palestinians is violence against terrorists and is thus justified (as much as we may regret the unavoidable collateral damage).
  • Criticism of Israel at any time, including when women and children are dying by the hundreds, is simply a sign of antisemitism.
To support claim number 2, simply refer back to claim number 1 and loop the loop. There's a lot more in Peters' text and each theme has a number of variations, which I summarize as an end note.*** But where does that lead us?

Claim #3- The conclusion of Peters is implied, but his job is to lead you to conceive of it, to be ready for it, maybe to wish for it. And when you talk to some people in Israel and in the US, you realize it is working. There's only one conclusion we have to be ready for:
  • No path of peace or negotiation is possible (once again, go back to 1).
    [In the same vein, there were a number of editorials in the US during the active phase of the Gaza war telling the public: "Isn't it a shame for the poor children? But nothing can be done. It's better to leave it alone for now and not worry about it. Please return to your normal activities."]
  • Absolute violence will be needed and will have to go on until the Arabs are either subjugated or destroyed.
Now, if that doesn't send shivers up your spine, it's probably simply because this is all too far away from you and we humans are not designed to see, without great effort, the consequences which distant and remote catastrophes will have on our daily lives tomorrow.

My point is not to take all of these claims and disprove them one by one (a good place to start for that is Gush-Shalom's Truth vs. Truth). My point is to ask what happens when you view the world with such hopelessness? What happens when you believe that hatred against you is so pervasive? What happens when you see one people group as inherently lesser - lesser than you, lesser than others - lesser than human? What happens?

It's actually not all propaganda. Of course these themes are part of a propaganda campaign, which is well analyzed elsewhere. But for many this propaganda has become a core belief, a reality to live with.

Many people living in Southern Israel, for example, have accepted the authorized history of this land in the 20th Century. They are (though not all) impervious to the successive deceptions of governments playing the game of a fictitious 'road map to peace' while allowing conquest by illegal settlers and pushing all the wrong buttons at the wrong time to ensure the continuation of the conflict. In that context who wouldn't be traumatized by rockets flying over one's city -- the fact that these rockets killed 20 of your own people in eight years, while about 3,000 of "them" were killed during that same period gets hidden by a few acts of humanitarianism and generosity. (And if you start to question those facts, go back to claims #1 and 2.)

Whether it's propaganda or you honestly (even if perhaps blindly) believe in the first set of claims, you then have to agree with the second set. And pretty soon, you don't even have to agree with the third set, you just have to be ready and to accept it. You just have to make it an acceptable idea. A thought. A possibility.

The other thing that happens is that you don't have to look at the facts, you don't have to question the news and you don't have to learn history: it's all written. Black and white, no grey, no room for compromise. Those who would not believe in the necessary return to brutish times which these beliefs demand--us vs. them--are naive fools who believe in fluffy concepts of peace and goodwill to men; they are appeasers and dreamers.

I am many things but hardly naive but I believe something else is possible. I believe, as do Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Uri Avnery, Elias Chacour, Naim Ateek and others that good fences make good neighbors. That should Israel pull back behind its recognized borders and--with the Western powers--allow the Palestinians to resolve their own internal questions, there would be a partner for peace and someone to bring order against extremist groups, assuming Israel dares to bring order to its own extremist groups. (Click here for more of my essays.)

What I believe is, however, hardly the point. The point is that if the beliefs captured in these three sets of claims are true, then we will have slaughter, mayhem, blood and chaos on a new scale in the Middle East. Some coldly say: "So be it. Just as long as Israel wins." It is the blind arrogance of fear and rage speaking. If we continue going down that path, the whole world--maybe even Smalltown, USA--will take another hellish turn.

The beliefs we feed now create the world we will live in tomorrow.

So, I am certainly asking those who call themselves 'friends of Israel' what they are doing to either feed or heal this nihilism?


* I sort of trust readers of this blog know where I stand for the most part; that I am equally amazed at the workers of peace and justice on the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and secular fronts and equally sickened by the culture of death which can reside in those same groups. I assert the freedom to express my views about any influence on peace and war and the future of our common world. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I don't think I can be accused of lumping any one type of people into a single undifferentiated group in order to point the finger at that group. What this post does is try to look at a reality among members of a global community and how it can affect our collective history - let the reader judge if it is accurate and pertinent on the ground of the analysis provided, without misjudgment of intent ("procès d'intention" in French).

** I actually did a line-by-line deconstruction of the Peters piece, which I can send as an MS Word file to anyone interested.

*** Among Peters' variations on a theme: the righteousness of Israel means that all of Israel's wars are moral wars; the IDF (Israeli army) is going out of its way to be a moral army and always uses restraint; finally Israel has left Gaza alone and ended its occupation since 2005 (the objectively most blatant lies of all). The world's unquenched antisemitism shows in the UN, the embodiment of the world's hatred for the Jews; the concern of the global community for the Palestinians is just one more sign of antisemitism; and even Jewish criticism for Israeli behaviors can only be due to naive self-hating Jews. On the Arab side of the equation, Palestinians are not from Palestine and there is no occupation; Palestinian grievances are mere excuses to blame and hate Jews; and Arab states conspire to maintain the Palestinian refugee problem simply to create problems for Israel. (I'll grant Peters that Arab states' treatment of Palestinian refugees has been shameful.)

Source of picture:
Martin Niemoeller's poem inscribed on a stone in the New England Holocaust Memorial.


Elrig Ciles said...

Awfully tacky to leave a comment on my own text. But this article shows interestingly (sadly) the change in tone and spirit, which is happening in Israel. (

It's a mistake to think this is a consequence of the radicalization of Palestinian Muslims; in fact both phenomenons are the consequence of one thing: the dead end logic of the occupation.

But both now exist and will require different responses.

Ali said...

Hi Elrig, I just came across your blog, very interesting indeed. So u were in Gaza lately, how were you able to go it, did the Egyptians and Israelis give you a permission? would like to hear more