Israel

Talking about Gaza, Held by the Balls and Throat

Writing before the outbreak of the current war with Hamas in Gaza, Israeli author Ari Shavit had the following to say:

I am haunted by the notion that we hold them by the balls and they hold us by the throat. We squeeze and they squeeze back. We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends.

My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit (pg. 236)

It seems to me that much of the writing and commentary about the current war between Hamas and Israel seems to follow this pattern as well. One group of people make their statements, while the others respond with an oppositional view. We yell back and forth, squeezing each other in a cycle of fruitless argumentation that is only aggravated by the proliferation of the “Share on Facebook” button. I myself, stand guilty as charged.

As such, it is not my goal at this point to add any new political, military, or ethical commentary on the fighting. After nearly a month of physical violence, I have accumulated so much commentary in my head that I fear we will soon reach a critical mass and most will simply choose to tune out the background noise of the rocket fire, the drone strikes, and the exploding booby-trapped schools.

Rather, I wish to note the emerging pattern of commentary that can be found online, in print, and on television new. It seems to me that those who wade into discussions/commentary/yelling about the war largely (almost exclusively) tend to base their arguments on one of five general paradigms. I outline them below, noting the key features, providing examples, and noting how they risk contributing to the downfall of meaningful engagement and understanding. At close, I’ll offer a suggestion of how we might further advance our conversations.

 

1. The “My-Side vs. Your-Side” perspective

Unsurprisingly, this tends to be the most common approach to talking about Gaza/Israel. See all the media coming out of the IDF’s social media outlets, and all those who gratuitously repost everything on Facebook. Ditto for those lambasting Israel at every opportunity on op-ed pages around the world. Ditto for those lumping all Palestinians in with Hamas. We’ve reached the age where 140 characters isn’t enough, you can now follow a war on Instagram.

Those who write from this paradigm are essentially cheerleaders trying to drown out the noise from the opposing team. Unwilling to hear or understand the viewpoint of others, these people troll through the comment sections of website, spewing out tired talking-points and ad-hominem attacks. They thrive in the echo-chambers of Facebook walls, and contribute no real substance to the conversation.

 

2. The “Must be understood in context of the larger Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” perspective.

See David Grossman’s An Israel Without Illusions and Roger Cohen’s Zionism and its Discontents for two excellent examples of how it is impossible to divorce this current conflict from the wider state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those who write from this paradigm attempt to explain the circumstances of this war in Gaza in light of those operations in 2009 and 2012, how the unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine fuels the current state of affairs, what Israel’s role is in this context, and how in truth these are not separate stories, but one large story.

It seems to me that while those who write from this paradigm are correct to search for a larger unifying narrative, this approach often minimizes the degree of Hamas’s culpability at the expense of crafting a neater, tidier story-arc. This approach tends to place most focus on the longer story of Israel and the Palestinians, with less focus on the more recent arrival of Hamas on the scene.

 

3. The “Must be understood in context of a more regional geo-political perspective” perspective

See David Brooks’ excellent piece, No War is an Island for an example of this concept. Those who write from this paradigm are not merely content with a localized, Israeli-Palestinian context for explaining this war. Instead, they turn to the wider Middle East, with particular attention paid to divisions within the Sunni-Islam world. Comments are frequently made on the states of relationship between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.

This approach is crucial, as it explores over a century of history which plays a vital role in understanding the various nodes of conflict that have emerged. Yet as with the previous paradigm, it seems to me this perspective risks shifting its focus so wide, that it almost completely misses out on the human cost when it comes to civilian deaths in Gaza and impact on civilian life in Israel. When speaking of international Sunni relationships, it is far too easy to lose sight of the individual lives which are touched and lost in this war.

 

4. The “Moral Equivalency” perspective (which itself has two sub-paradigms):

a. The “All death is immoral, and all parties are equally culpable” perspective:

For those with this viewpoint, the only measure of morality (or immorality, as it were) in war is the rising death toll. Death = bad. From this vantage point, no nuance or context is possible, as the value of human life is reduced to a mathematical equation. The war is simplistically reduced to infographics (I’m looking at you, New York Times), and it becomes conviniently “easy” to make arguments without any wider context. “Israel and Hamas are both causing death, ergo Israel & Hamas are equally bad,” goes this argument, and it is easy to feel as though one has made a morally sound comment on the war. However, this perspective ignores its partner…

b. The “There is no moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” perspective:

This is also known as the The “Hamas’ intentions are immoral in that they intentionally target civilians, while Israel’s intentions are moral in that they don’t” perspective. Those speaking in this light are right to make a moral distinction between Israel’s and Hamas’s modus operandi, however I find that this viewpoint often becomes a barrier to further conversation. For these interlocutors, it is as if the fact that Hamas is a murderous terrorist organization while Israel is (for now) a (reasonably) liberal democracy exempts Israel from any culpability whatsoever for its actions in war.

This perspective takes a step in the right direction by making a nuanced moral distinction, yet misses the mark by not extending that distinction to the continued actions of Israel and Hamas.

Some of those speaking from this viewpoint also make the poignant argument that many criticizing Israel have been conspicuously morally silent when it comes to other wars in the middle east (cough, cough… Syria). See Chloe Valdary’s punchy piece in Tablet, To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter from an Angry Black Woman, which calls out the smug sententiousness of many who have waded into this conflict.

 

5. The “We must dialogue with each other AND try to ask questions to better understand what is going on” perspective

This includes internal conversations amongst Israelis, Zionists, and/or Jews (these are not all the same!), and Palestinians and Arabs (also not the same!); as well as conversations across religious/ethnic/ideological boundaries. Makom is leading the way on the Israel-centric side of this paradigm, with their question-based curriculum exploring ideas of peoplehood, power, and responsibility.

From an educational perspective, this approach is certainly the most worthy, as it encourages critical thinking and nuance in an attempt to engage people in a deeper and less superficial way. That said, as it is a value-based approach, it risks missing out on the historical context and real-world implications of daily life in Gaza and Israel. In truth, it is often more focused on the opinions and egos of the observers, rather than on the realities of the war itself.

 

There is quasi-sixth perspective –  the one which states: “I am sick and tired of the fighting. Why can’t they just get along with each other?” This is also known as the “crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy” perspective. Sometimes those with more hawkish viewpoints will pejoratively call this perspective “naive.” In any event, those holding this viewpoint are largely apathetic to the realities of the war in Gaza and Israel and don’t really have any meaningful engagement in the conversation. They can and should be invited in, however they aren’t contributing to the “noise” out there, and as such there is not much else to say about them here.

 


 

A solution?

I would argue that any writing or conversation about this war which does not begin with an understanding that the stated objectives of Hamas and Israel are on entirely different moral grounds leaves little room for continued conversation. Any conscionable person must acknowledge that Hamas aims first and foremost to murder innocent Jews and Israelis.

That said, the conversation must not stop there. It is not enough to say that Hamas are terrorists and Israel is a democracy. This may be true, but it does not make a cogent argument. We must continue the conversation.

Without an understanding of how this war does not exist in a historical vacuum and must be understood both in light of the two previous Gaza wars/operations, as well as in light of wider regional conflicts, it is challenging to say anything of critical value. We must not ignore larger narratives that continue to play a very real role in unfolding events.

But we must not extend our perspective so far as to lose sight of the very real human element. The conversation must not be limited to a cold geopolitical analysis.

Humans must not be reduced to numbers and infographics. Conversations should include a deeper understanding of the very-real human tolls both in Gaza and in Israel; tolls which manifest themselves in very different ways.

With a balanced understanding of history and humanity, we can honestly begin to consider moral implications. Any argument absent of the previous components heavily risks coming off as moralizing from a standpoint of unfounded superiority. And while it is easy to argue that Hamas and Israel stand on entirely different moral grounds, any commentary which ignores questions of the moral implications of Israel’s actions is also missing a significant component of the story. In our commentaries and conversations, no party should be permitted to act with impunity.

It is woeful and egregious that very little commentary – certainly of the kind that pervades Facebook and Twitter as of late – honours the complexity of this situation. The current state of conversation serves mostly to push most people away from having any meaningful understanding of the events.

Whether by reducing humans to numbers and statistics, or by reducing questions of morality to terrorism vs. democracy, we are not allowing room for real critical knowledge. We are lying by omission.

Anyone who makes the choice to wade into this situation – either from the pulpit of the New York Times; from the echo chambers of Facebook; or from WordPress, that bastion of democratic writing  – bears responsibility for the outcome of their words.

We must choose our words carefully, allowing room for emotion, but not in the absence of context and history. And we must be careful not to choose one history over another. Too often, we are missing an understanding that the topic of our conversations is that of very real human lives.

Absent a more just and honest framework, all we continue to do is grasp each other by the balls and throat, squeezing back and forth in an endless cycle. In our own way, we are contributing to this never-ending tragedy.

Israel, Politics

Israel vs. the Rest, Part Two: Facebooking the way to Victory

This is part 2 in a series of posts on rallies related to what’s going on the Mideast. Part 1 is here.

I had originally intended my second post in this series to be a look at some organizations and people who actually have the guts to get dirty and actively involved in the causes they are supposedly rallying for. I’ll get to that later this weekend. Instead, I need to comment on another “rally” that is taking place right now, as we speak. I received an email yesterday from the World Zionist Organization – a group that I have been an active member of in the past – notifying me of a 24 hour “virtual rally” on Facebook for the citizens of southern Israel. I almost laughed a little. I though to myself “this is either going to be a forum for some pretty harsh vitriol, or it’s going to be a poorly ‘attended,’ with no discernible positive outcome.”

sderot-facebook1So I checked in on the “rally” a few minutes ago. There are about 4,000 people “attending,” and about 100 people have posted comments on the wall. I’d say that by Facebook standards, those numbers really aren’t much to be proud of; Zoolander and Hogwarts seem to be more pressing causes. I’m not surprised. What did surprise me was the breakdown of wall posts: about 70% were one line platitudes of Israel’s actions, 5% were anti-Arab rants, and one girl had the courage to post that she was leaving the “rally” because it didn’t offer any constructive purpose, aside from providing a forum for Anti-Arab bashing. And what about the other 25%? Well they thought that they were RSVPing to an actual rally, and posted comments regretting their absence. They didn’t even know it wasn’t a really rally. Sad.

The Facebook “rally” isn’t an ultimately terrible thing. It’s not evil, and if residents of Israel take emotional support from it, then I’m not entirely opposed. But let’s be clear: it’s not a good thing either, and it does have one pretty sinister aspect to it. A “rally” like this lives in the realm of fence-sitting, as it allows people to give vocal (or textual) expression to something they support, but doesn’t channel that support into an active cause. It’s apathy masquerading as passive activism. Like this week’s rally at the Israeli Consulate, the Facebook “rally” doesn’t accomplish much. But at least at the New York rally, people got up on their feet and went somewhere. Here, all people did was click a button online.

To be sure, this was part of the marketing of the “rally” as well. My email informed me that “all you have to do is log in and click ‘attending,'” and that that would be a show of my support and sympathy. Wow! Maybe the WZO and Facebook should partner and create a line of virtual bereavement sympathy cards. They could give Hallmark a run for their money.

What’s saddest of all about the Facebook “rally” is that it was being held on Facebook — arguably the greatest social networking tool humanity currently has at its disposal. Had there been any critical and constructive thinking on the part of the planners, this “event” could have channeled people to get out of their offices, and do something. It could have provided educational resources. It could have been a forum for true dialogue. It could have brought together pragmatists, progressives, and true activists from not only the Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli world, but also the Arab, Palestinian, and “other” world! Instead, a “rally” like this one only furthers the notion that the conflict in the Mideast can be viewed through black and white lenses, or through “Attending” or “Not Attending” mouse clicks. It’s all a virtual folly.

Shabbat Shalom.

Next up:
Part Three – A look at the dictionary definitions of the word “rally” and how that should be your first clue as to how these are not real rallies.

Part Four – A look at some organizations and people who actually have the guts to get dirty and actively involved in the causes they are supposedly rallying for.

Part Five – A review of how I got dirty and active.

Israel

Worth Repeating: To the Westerner who “understands” the terrorist

To the Westerner who “understands” the terrorist:
By Bradley Burston

Spare us the explanations.

Spare us the learned, sociology-drenched justifications.

Spare us the reasons why you “get” Palestinians when they gun Jews down in cold blood.

Spare us the chapter and verse on how the plight of the Palestinians is at the root of Islamic terrorism the world over, and if the Palestinians were to receive full justice, Islamic terrorism would pass from the world.

Spare us.

You may well believe, with the blind faith of the hopeful and the fear-stricken, that when these people are through with the Jews, they won’t come for you.

Think again.

Spare us the post-modernism and the radical chic and the guff.

Open your eyes.

When a gunman walks into a Jewish religious seminary at the main entrance to that part of Jerusalem which has been Jewish since 1948, and which was stolen from no one, pay attention.

When he opens fire on religious students hunched over books in a library, firing and firing until blood soaks holy book bindings and open pages of Talmud and the whole of the floor, pay close attention to the reactions of the self-styled people of faith who run Hamas.

Spare us the conclusion that the only reason Hamas kills Jews, and that its underlying motive for encouraging others to do the same, is to force Israel to agree to a cease-fire.

Spare us the “Israel’s policies are responsible for the bloodshed” and “the seminary is, after all, an ideological bastion and symbol of the religious right” and all the other scholarly, arrogant, condescending and amoral ways of saying “they had it coming to them.”

Spare us the understanding for the motivations of the mass murderer who kills with God on his lips. Spare us the understanding of the words of the Hamas official who says that after all the Israeli killings of Palestinians, the Jerusalem killings are “our only joy.”

Spare us the sight of the thanksgiving prayers for the great victory, prayers that began in Gaza City mosques just after the slaughter of the Jews. Spare us the sight of the sweets being handed out by little children to motorists in passing cars in the Strip, sweets to celebrate the young Jews dead on the floor, the young Jews dead at their desks, the Jews killed for the crime of being Jews in that place of study and worship.

Spare us the righteousness of those who condemned Baruch Goldstein for entering a holy place with an assault rifle and murdering Palestinians, but who can understand why a Palestinian might do the very same thing,

Open your eyes.

Last week, when Israeli forces drove into Gaza, and some 120 Palestinians were killed, many of them were gunmen, but with children making up another sixth of the total, one grieving father spoke with quiet eloquence, saying “Other places in the world, when this happens, there is a great outcry. When this happens here, the world is silent. No one cares.”

He’s right. The world has grown content to let Palestinians die. The reason is not simple callousness. And it is not, as Hamas proclaims to its followers in Gaza, that the Jews control the world media and world finance, and thus Western government as well.

The reason is terrorism.

The world has grown weary of the Islamist’s creed, that only the armed struggle can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the only proper resolution is the end of Israel.

Even the Israeli left, which for decades championed the Palestinian with courage and determination, has, in large part, had it with the Palestinians. The reason is terrorism. The reason is murder. The reason is that the rulers of Gaza are people who see an intrinsic value in the killing of Jews for the sake of increasing the number of dead Jews in the world.

The rulers of Gaza cannot bring themselves to accept the concept of sharing the Holy Land with the Jews.

The best that the rulers of Gaza can do, is to bring an end to hope among their own people and ours as well.

They believe that the Jewish state is temporary, and that they Jews will soon abandon it to Islamic rule.

After all this time, you’d think they’d know the Jews a little better.