Monday, July 21, 2014

A few thoughts on discourse related to the current flare-up of hostilities

People who blog about current events almost inevitably make themselves part of horizontal or lateral propaganda (a useful term I learned from Jacques Ellul). Because of this, I've remained largely silent. I don't trust my judgment and I don't want to be a propagandist for any cause. As a Jew, I know that I should raise my voice in support of Israel's right to defend itself from random rocket attacks on civilian populations. But I find myself silenced by the growing toll of civilian deaths in Gaza. I understand that the Israeli aerial assault, naval operations, and ground invasion aims at degrading the capability of terrorists emerging from tunnels to wreak as much havoc as possible and I cherish recent grudging IDF expressions of respect for the Hamas fighters they've encountered. But I am also troubled by the mounting evidence of blind contempt, hatred and racism among Jews and Israelis that is evident in blogs and reflected in a widely posted program of ethnic cleansing penned by a member of the Israeli Knesset. At the same time I am dismayed by anti-Jewish violence and anti-Semitic slogans heard across Europe. I sympathize with my friends in Israel whose lives are disrupted by air-raid sirens and my heart breaks when I think of the acute degradation and devastation suffered by the people of Gaza. It is hard to find anything useful to say other than, stop!

Any yet, it is difficult not to notice that this of all conflicts takes up disproportionate amounts of our attention; disproportionate because it pales in comparison of what Syrians are doing to Syrians, Islamists to Muslims (and Christians), the increasing threat to the Kurdish regions of Iraq, the intransigence of the Maliki government, the deterioration of Libya, the return to military rule in Egypt, the flailing about for a proper response to what's going on between Russia and the Ukraine, the complete silence on Pakistan's military operations in Waziristan. Not to speak of the ever new assaults on our natural environment, the earth and the resources we all share and depend on.

Jerusalem, I have been told, has largely remained sheltered from rockets fired from Gaza, though there have been protests and clashes since the heinous and hideous acts of killing and revenge that are now almost eclipsed by the new Gaza war that was triggered by these criminal acts. What lessons are Palestinians to learn from all this, what lessons Israelis? How are we to talk about any of this without taking sides and turning ourselves into propagandists, appeasers or war-mongers?

I found a few useful articles that discuss the role of social media in the ongoing propaganda wars. Jodi Rudoren writes about this in today's NYTimes, for example. There was also an interesting discussion of responses to the current situation in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine. But the, to me, best and most pertinent article appeared in The Forward, where Jay Michaelson offers advice on "how to turn down the social media flame."

As to my own reading, I picked up Sari Nusseibeh's very haunting little book, What is a Palestinian State Worth? It is a book on Palestinian statehood by a philosopher, member of an old Jerusalemite family, who wants us to think out of the box. Because thinking within the box merely means more of the same: more hatred and frustration, more killing and revenge, more mutual threats of complete destruction, more war and death. We definitely need to go beyond the slogans. We may even need to think beyond statehood, borders, and flags. Thinking within the box merely reinstates the zero-sum-game of "justice for Palestine" v. "security for Israel." What is at stake here is whether we can rediscover and care for humanity, our own as well as that of the other. This is not just a matter of basic morality or religious faith but of politics, though surely of a new politics, one founded on the principle of coexistence rather than the desire of domination and annihilation.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Remembering the Holocaust today

Today we remember the Holocaust. The term derives from a Greek word used in the Septuagint translation of the Mosaic Torah for a type of sacrifice that was entirely consumed by fire and went up in smoke (to holocautoma; Hebr. 'olah). In Hebrew, this day is called Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura and it is timed to fall half way between the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Israel's independence day. It is thus a symbolic date, recognizing a large-scale catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry at the hand of the Nazis and their helpers in Germany and many other countries. When speaking of the Holocaust, images of emaciated bodies and gas chambers come to mind. By means of visual evidence and survivors' accounts, the generations of those too young to remember themselves have acquired a sense of what happened.

We've heard that it is our duty to remember but how can you remember what you have not experienced? You can only remember what you have not experienced if you care about those whose lives have been directly touched by what happened then.

President Abbas, the head of the Palestine National Authority and of the PLO, has joined the ranks of those who care. This was a courageous thing to do. To recognize the suffering of the Jews at a time when Jews are inflicting pain on the Palestinian people is a heroic act, no matter how calculated the timing. Abbas, who once belittled the destruction of European Jewry and questioned its scope, is now cited as recognizing the Holocaust as the "most heinous crime" of modern history. What makes this recognition courageous is that it defies the Palestinian, his own people's, narrative, wherein Holocaust and Nakba are equated. The Nakba, which roughly means the same as ha-Shoah, refers to the expulsion of three quarters of a million of Arabs in 1948 and 49 from what became the State of Israel and the beginning of the plight of the Palestinian refugees. What Abbas says when he recognizes the monstrosity of the Holocaust is that he recognizes the Jewish historical memory as based on something real that defies the imagination. He understands that the trauma of the Jewish past is real and that it fuels Jewish fears today.

We should not dismiss what Abbas has done here as a mere political maneuver, attempting to have it both ways, seeing that he just initiated a reconciliation with Hamas, an organization Israel and the US regard as a terrorist group bent on the destruction of Israel. What Abbas is trying, and it is worth considering it seriously, is to uncouple the past from the present, Jewish victimhood from Jewish statehood. What he says is that one can recognize that Jews suffered beyond measure, while denying that past suffering entitles the Jews today to oppress others. Abbas thereby admonishes us not to politicize the Holocaust but to honor the victims, no matter our current quarrels. But it also says something else. It says that Abbas understands that Israelis and Jews world-wide are hesitant to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians because their past is always before them. Palestinians realize that for Israel to trust the them requires for Israel to leave its past behind, to remember the past without being dominated by it, to honor the victims without projecting the names of their killers onto the faces of their current adversaries. What Abbas is asking of us is to distinguish present from past, Arabs from Nazis, and the Israeli state from the European Jews who were deported, ghettoized, worked to death and exterminated without state-protection and deprived of neighborly solidarity. Abbas understands that he has to face the Israelis as they are, not as the figment of Arab imagination and invective. He is fighting a civilized fight for a dignified and mutually respectful future that no longer denies the other's past. How successful this initiative will be depends on how it will be received on both sides. I think we should welcome it as a step in the right direction.