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, Judaism - General, Judaism - Pluralism, Life, Politics

Israel vs. The Rest, Part Three

A review of my experiences at yesterday’s pro-peace Rally, this is Part 3 in a series of posts on rallies related to what’s going on the Mideast. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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Today, as I think about yesterday’s rallies, I am certain of three things:

1. The frequency of people tagging blogs with “Gaza,” “Israel,” and “Palestine,” has shot through the roof. Needless to say, not everything is newsworthy or even cogent, but at the very least, it does indicate an increased awareness.

2. In my next post, where I focus on what a rally really is, and what it really needs to entail, I’ll argue that the vast majority of the 10,000 people at the pro-Israel “rally” don’t know much about what they are supposedly rallying for. For now, I’ll throw this out there in support of why our protest was a real rally, and the other wasn’t:

No dialogue resulted from the other “rally.” It was just a bunch of guys on a podium shouting platitudes, with a bunch of people cheering. There was no working to bring about change. It was monolithic. Everyone even looked alike, as all were given “tzeva adom” (red alert) hats to wear. The organizer informed the multitudes that these hats were “a symbol that the missiles would stop falling, and the alerts would end.” Right. Hats. Why not take the money that was spent on the hats, and donate it to assist those lives in peril in southern Israel? That’s really advocacy. That’s real activism.

At our rally, there was dialogue (albeit hostile at times), that had the express intent of bringing about a change to the status quo in the Jewish community. We may not have changed people’s point of view, but we made it undeniably clear that this is not a black and white issue. We got attention from a wide variety of media and press, including Radio-Canada, who interviewed me in French when they heard I was Canadian. They all seemed mildly surprised that there could possibly be supporters of a “middle-way.” No surprise, given that much of the media was focused on the giant stage on 42nd Street.

3. Here’s a run-down of the colourful remarks hurled – by Jews – at me and others yesterday:

“You’re leading the way back to Auschwitz!”
“You’ll bring about another 9/11”
“You’re not Jewish! Take off your kippas! You’re not a real Jew!”
“There are no innocent civilians in Gaza!”
“Shame, shame shame!” (Repeat, ad nausea…)

Deeply hurt, I didn’t take any of these slurs personally. They hurt because they’re a stewing indicator of the inability of people to see beyond their own point of view. If there is a solution to the shit, it lies in people who are able to see beyond their limited horizons and outside of their borders.

While I’m not so sure I want to remember everything, I’ll have photos and video posted soon.


Next up, Part Four: Rallying the way to Victory

Israel, Politics

Israel vs. the Rest, Part One: Cheerleading the way to Victory

york16 years ago, during my first year at York University, it was the height of the second intifada. Both in Israel and on my campus, tensions flared, screaming matches in public places were common, and a war was waged by both sides to win over the compassion of the media. And on some days in Vari Hall, the central court on campus, if you squinted your eyes just enough, you might have actually thought you were in the West Bank. After all, they had bombed out buses, and we had bombed out buses. They had a separation fence wall, and we had a separation fence wall. They had checkpoints, and we had checkpoints. They had screaming Jews and Arabs, and we had screaming Jews and Arabs. Really, the only difference between the two locales was the lack of terrorists killing people and an armed response. Aside from that, it was war on all fronts.

As an impressionable freshman, fresh out of high school and youth group, I was only too eager to join in the protests and become an activist. I donned my IDF uniform, draped myself in an Israeli flag, and held up posters of victims of terrorism, shouting my support for Israel and feeling ever so proud. Yes, I was an activist. I didn’t tell people that at that point, I had never been to Israel or the West Bank, because it didn’t matter. I read Israel newspapers, and I watched international news. But not CNN.

04protestxlarge1This is the story of far too many members of the Jewish community in North America. Switch sides, and it’s the story of far too many members of the Muslim/Arab community in North America. The details really are the same on both sides. People – many of whom have never been to the land they are yelling about – engaged in screaming matches, fueled mostly by pent-up emotions and an unhealthy dose of propaganda from whatever news outlet is telling the story in the way they want to hear it.

Thankfully, I got tired, grew weary, and mellowed out. I saw the bigger picture. I tried to broaden my horizons. I saw through the vitriol and realized that these rallies, protests, and screaming matches really didn’t accomplish anything. For the most part, they were nothing more than a giant way to get to catharsis for each party. Whoever screamed the loudest, pushed the hardest, showed the most gruesome photos, and attracted the largest group of unimpressed observers won. There was nothing activist about these rallies, nothing influential, and nothing lasting. Sure, they made the newspapers the next day, and spawned a screaming match of words in the letters-to-the-editor section. But that was it. These rallies didn’t influence any change in policy, they didn’t win over larger groups of fence-sitters, and they didn’t raise any knowledgeable awareness among the “activists”. They were and always will be a small blip on the time-line of the conflict.

Which is why I surprised myself yesterday, as with trepidation I joined Hanan – one of our shlichim – and walked down to the Israeli consulate in New York yesterday to watch a pro-Israel/anti-Hamas rally. Not to take part. Just to watch. I wanted to see what a rally looked like after the supposed end of the second intifada. I wanted to see what a rally looked like here in New York.

nyp_m1And here, in the centre of the Jewish world outside Israel, I saw more of the same. Yelling and shouting; some of it filled with hatred, some of it filled with passion, but none of it filled with activism. If anybody there thought that their speeches, chanting, and anthem-singing would actually stop Hamas from raining down rockets on Israel, they were sorely misguided. If anybody there thought that their speeches, chanting, and anthem-singing would actually change US policy on Israel, they were sorely misguided. Maybe in a country or city where support for Israel wasn’t natural, a rally such as this could have had a substantive purpose. But this is New York City! The thousands of people crowding Second Avenue weren’t there to accomplish anything other than a giant feat of cheerleading. And unimpressive cheerleading at that – nobody was tossed into the air, there was no marching band, and there were no pompoms.

At the rally, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Chairperson of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations had an interesting statement to share with the crowd:

“We tell the United Nations today: Stay out. Let Israel do what it has to do.”

Mr. Hoenlein sure is a great cheerleader. He pretty much sums up my entire argument. Thanks, Mr. Hoenlein. What these cheerleaders and rallyers want most of all – more than dialogue, more than constructive discussion, more than engaging activism on the part of North American Jews – is for their side to win. They view Mideast politics as a football game, where North American Jews are cheerleaders jumping around wildly on the sidelines. They don’t want anyone else to get involved, they don’t want to hear the commentary from the pundits (people who actually know something about what’s going on), they just want to see their side pummel the other side without any interference. The UN may have many issues, including a woefully poor track record on being balanced when it comes to Israel, but at least it tries to be a representative voice of moderation. Much more than we can say for Mr. Hoenlein – a man who is supposed to represent the major Jewish organizations, and thus supposedly, the majority of organized Jews.

cheerleaderAnd unfortunately, this isn’t just a Jewish problem. It’s the same on both “sides.” Most of the Western World is content with viewing the conflict in Israel as a football match, because it means they don’t have to get hurt and dirty. They can just dance wildly from the sidelines, cheering and screaming, holding up signs and feeling as though they’re contributing to the welfare of their team.

But cheerleaders don’t get to win the Super Bowl.

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Tomorrow — Israel vs. The Rest, Part Two: Those who have the Guts to get Dirty