Friday, November 23, 2012

"Enough of blood and tears . . . Enough!"

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[No, this has nothing to do with fashion.]

I'm relieved that Israel and Gaza have agreed to a ceasefire, and that it wasn't as bitter and destructive as Operation Cast Lead three years ago.  But it freshly broke open the festering wounds in each side's narrative--the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the new state of Israel in 1948, and the collective memories of pogroms and Holocaust that the Jewish immigrants had carried with them to the Holy Land.  Each side's tactics continue to have the opposite of their intended effects on their opponents, bringing to mind Einstein's definition of insanity.  And the rest of the world struggles to get a constructive conversation about the issue through the murk of identity politics.

The rabbi at the synagogue in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, where I attended religious school, seemed like a pretty enlightened guy.  But when he explained how Israel initially received statehood from the UN partitioning process, he glossed over the controversy and bloodshed surrounding its creation.  And when he told us about Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, he didn't provide the political context.  Or maybe he did, and I was too young to understand it.

Some years later, when I was in college, I heard of a poll that showed that a strong majority of Palestinians--about 70%--believed suicide bombings against Israeli civilians were justified.  Discussing it with my mother, I said there must be some mistake--the sample wasn't randomized, or the survey questions were leading.  But my mother said she could easily believe it.  When people are ground down for so long by poverty and violence, she said, it distorts their moral sense.  Rabbi Harold Kushner notes a similar process among Israelis: "I think sixty years of living under siege, worried that any briefcase could be a bomb and any pedestrian could be a terrorist, has contributed to the coarsening of Israeli society, affecting the way they drive, the way they argue, and inevitably affecting how they see their Arab neighbors."  Although it's only natural to have less immediate sympathy for people who harbor such hatred, I decided that a people's right to freedom and security cannot depend on them having perfectly sanitized sensibilities.  After all, the children don't choose what prejudices they're raised with.

And four years ago, during Operation Cast Lead, a fellow congregant at the synagogue in Manhattan, KS, was sharing her thoughts on the conflict.  She is a Bulgarian who met her husband in Israel.  She said that the deaths of civilians and destruction of civilian structures in Gaza was tragic, but couldn't be helped--it was the only way to stop the torrent of rockets in southern Israel.  My instinct was that Israel's tactics couldn't possibly be justified, but I wondered if this woman had a point.  After the gathering at the synagogue, I went to a cafĂ© to do some work.  Another member of the congregation was there, a right-wing fellow, and he came up to me and said, "Did you know that Hamas was attacking from the UN school [which Israeli air strikes had damaged] and using human shields!?"  I muttered, "No, I hadn't heard," and hustled off to find a table.  I was furious with him for disturbing me in a place where I had come for relaxation, and for assuming that I'd agree with his hawkish politics on Israel just because I'm Jewish. 
 
Now it occurs to me that the UN school incident is a microcosm for the whole situation and the way the global community discusses it.  Israel using highly destructive tactics.  Hamas utterly flouting rules of engagement by putting its own people at risk.  A global outcry against Israel that was understandable, but betrayed an assumption that Israel would do such a thing without extenuating circumstances--in other words, an utter unwillingness to give Israel the benefit of the doubt.  Israel blaming Hamas's ruthless tactics for the extent of the damage, rather than asking whether it should have used different tactics with an enemy known to hold its own people hostage.  And above all, Israel failing to step back and see how ridiculous it is for a first-world democracy to be in the business of exerting military control over a stateless people.  You'd think they'd want to divest themselves of the responsibility already.

But I failed to recognize how endemic the colonialist sentiment in Israel is, since it's so outside the Jewish upbringing I received.  Even in the very limited and sanitized education I received about Israel, I learned to be grateful that we have a sovereign state at all, rather than to be greedy for more land.  I understood Zionism as a desperate yearning for an ancestral homeland, and a political effort to create it in modern times, but I was not instilled with a sense of entitlement to take it by force.  Based on these unconscious assumptions, I misunderstood Israel's main interest in controlling the Palestinian territories to be one of security--whereas colonialists seek land, water, minerals, trade routes, etc.  While the Israelis’ tactics might be woefully misguided, I thought their motives were understandable.  I thought the true colonialists were an extreme faction, consisting mainly of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories and their hardline backers in the Knesset.  A faction with undue influence, to be sure, but a manageable minority. 

But now I think (admittedly under heavy influence of my mother) that the extremist sentiment has bled into otherwise reasonable Israeli citizens and politicians, if it wasn't a mainstream fixture all along.  Perhaps the reason the conflict has dragged on for so many decades, and the Netanyahu-Lieberman administration has so spectacularly drug its feet, is that the extremism is deeply ingrained in Israel's policy toward Palestine, rather than being a removable fly in the ointment.  Perhaps that's why, even when it takes good-faith baby steps--dismantling settlements here, easing blockades there--Israel is unwilling to take some of the major steps that would address the Palestinians' deep-rooted and largely legitimate grievances, such as retreating to its pre-1967 borders.

During the latest conflict, I've bristled at the characterization of Israel's air strikes as willful, black-and-white atrocities.  Firstly, the IDF did a much better job than in Operation Cast Lead of tailoring their attacks to militant targets.  (Although I wonder why they weren't as well tailored in the last conflict.  Has the technology or the intel improved since 2009, or do they just have more conscience or sensitivity to international opinion?)  Also, the IDF tries to warn civilians to evacuate its targets, whereas Hamas deliberately targets civilians.  Moreover, as a legal analysis on the BBC World News website highlights, the principle of proportionality allows for the idea that a state will want to protect itself using tactics that are "required in order to achieve the legitimate purpose of the conflict, namely the complete or partial submission of the enemy at the earliest possible moment and with the minimum expenditure of life and resources."  The principle prohibits the state from using *more* than the required force, but allows that the tactics may result in higher casualties on the enemy side.  And maybe if any reasonable analyst thought that the air strikes would actually succeed in disabling Hamas and furthering the peace process, the moral calculus would be different.  But the deaths, injuries, and property damage on the Palestinian side deepen an already dismal psychological and economic environment, and only galvanize the people around Hamas.

For much of the Israeli populace, I think support for Operation Pillar of Defense was an honest self-defense instinct, and I think many of Israel’s critics could have been more sympathetic to that instinct, if not to its policy manifestation.  After all, it’s difficult to expect any national government to take the high road if it means incurring more civilian and military casualties in the short run.  The same goes for ongoing policies such as the Gaza blockade—it’s motivated at least in part by Israel’s legitimate concerns about suicide bombers and weapons trading.  And I think there’s some truth to the widespread complaint among Jews—hawks and doves alike—that the international community focuses disproportionate attention on Israel’s misdeeds. 

But if Israelis had a visceral reaction of lashing out against rocket fire, you can’t blame onlookers for reacting viscerally as if they’d seen a high school quarterback beating up a scrawny preteen.  And I think part of the reason the world scrutinizes Israel so heavily is that has higher expectations of Israel.  Jews should be flattered that critics worldwide think Israel would be more receptive to persuasion by humanistic principles than, say, North Korea.  I only wish the international community would back up its criticism by helping Israel and Palestine split the difference regarding the blockades—help prevent illicit weapons and militants from slipping across the borders and threatening Israel, while enabling Palestine to trade goods and grow its economy.  And, of course, I wish the U.S. would use its massive financial leverage to get Israel’s ass to the negotiating table.
 However, I think Israel has within itself the ingredients for empathy with its neighbors, willingness to compromise, and perseverance to build a lasting peace, even if it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process.  In a Yom Kippur sermon a couple years ago by Rabbi Kushner, the same one from which I took the earlier quote, he describes a speech he gave to a Unitarian conference, where he emphasized the ways in which Israel upholds the UU’s liberal principles, including equal treatment of women and gays.  While I don’t agree with all the statements and implications of Kushner’s sermon, one segment sticks with me: “I believe a democracy should be entitled to make mistakes without having its right to exist called into question.  And I believe that the more confident Israel is that we have their backs, that it has the undivided support of the American Jewish community, the readier it will be to take risks for peace.”
Kushner’s sermon is a deeply emotional defense of Israel.  It doesn’t address the question of whether Israel should have been created if the dispossession and bloodshed of Palestinians was inevitable—if it could not have been done democratically, no matter how many times we turned back the clock and tried again.  (For my part, I think Israel’s “vested” right to exist is good enough.)  And at multiple points in the sermon, you might think that his emotion is preventing him from being rational, that he cannot be an objective judge.  But I think his argument shows that sometimes an emotional approach is the right one.  After all, it is the impulse to stand in solidarity and give the benefit of the doubt that keeps families, friends, and communities together in times of crisis.  For my part, I insist just as hard that Israel be protected in the long term as that she help the Palestinians to secure a free and sovereign state.  I just ask the rest of the world to not dismiss Israel as a lost soul, but to have faith in its ability to eventually be a peacemaker.

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