Israel, Palestine, and Us: The Peace That Passeth All Understanding


Facebook has been a forest of assertions and denunciations this week. Maybe it’s the company I keep, but almost everyone is posting links at an accelerated rate, and the subject of this battle of citations is Israel-Palestine.

I spent a remarkable amount of time reading blogs and essays, but still, I was able to consume only a fraction of this material. The volume was such that I could have begun reading each morning, pausing only to sleep, then rolled out of bed and continued till bedtime the next day. The vast majority of posts came from people who, like me, live thousands of miles from the Mideast and, like me, have almost no direct knowledge of the situation. In fact, the intensity of posting seemed to escalate with distance, with people who live here in California screaming at each other with even more force than those who live in the region.

I have no doubt that horror and compassion played key roles in people’s desire to speak out. But they don’t tell the whole story. I think there is another story written between the lines of people’s posts, and that has to do with why, when, and how we rebuke injustice, which of the many outrages oozing from wounds in our social fabric seize our consciences and feed our righteous certainty. I am thinking of our own responsibility and the way it can seem to shrink as others’ culpability grows.

I started looking up the numbers on the U.S.’s own wars. You can’t find one authoritative number, but Wikipedia has an extensive list of sources and estimates you can check out yourself. They led me to put the total for Iraqi civilian casualties in our wars of 2003-2011 at about 100,000 (the UN estimated the number of war orphans at nearly 900,000), plus about 40,000 soldiers, military police, and insurgents. Approximately 4500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq, including deaths from causes other than combat. I have been thinking about our numbers, a ratio of “our deaths” to “their deaths” that is even more overbalanced than Israel-Palestine, not to justify but to understand how we come to normalize such moral calculus.

During 2003-2011, my own government made aggressive, unrelenting war on a government whose policies toward its own people I detested (as I do Hamas’ many violations), but who had not attacked the U.S. or impinged on any of our freedoms other than unfettered access to cheap oil. We had a peace movement, as does Israel. (Transposed to a population the size of the U.S.’s, the 7000 people who demonstrated on July 26 in Tel Aviv would equal nearly 300,000 here.) There is a petition by Israeli reservists refusing to serve in the Gaza war. I hope that Israeli antiwar activists have more impact on their government than we had on our own. In those days, I felt a little bit like the Israeli peace advocates whose words I’ve read in the past week (with the massive exception that my own life was in no way threatened as I rose to speak for peace; the only courage I was required to manifest was the willingness to go against mainstream opinion).

For example, consider reading playwright and novelist Etgar Keret’s New Yorker account of the jeopardy free expression is now in within Israel, and the dreadful moral and human consequences he perceives:

In 2014, in Israel, the definition of legitimate discourse has changed entirely. Discussion is divided between those who are “pro-I.D.F.” [Israeli Defense Forces] and those who are against it. Right-wing thugs chanting “death to Arabs” and “death to leftists” on the streets of Jerusalem or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s call to boycott Arab-Israeli businesses protesting the operation in Gaza are considered patriotic, while demands to stop the operation or mere expressions of empathy about the deaths of women and children in Gaza are perceived as a betrayal against flag and country. We are faced with the false, anti-democratic equation that argues that aggression, racism, and lack of empathy mean love of the homeland, while any other opinion – especially one that does not encourage the use of power and the loss of soldiers’ lives – is nothing less than an attempt to destroy Israel as we know it.

Consider reading this broken-hearted scream of consciousness from the Israeli singer Noa:

There are only two sides, and they are not Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs. They are moderates and the extremists. I belong to the moderates, wherever they are. They are my camp. And this camp needs to unite!! I have nothing whatsoever in common with the Jewish extremists who burn children alive, who poison wells and uproot trees, who throw stones at school children, who are motivated by brainwashed hate and acute self-righteousness. I want to bury my head in my hands and disappear, to the moon if possible, when I read the sermons of Rabbi Ginsburg and Lior, romanticizing death and killing in the name of God as did Baruch Goldstein, their sacred martyr, who murdered 29 Arabs in cold blood as they were praying !..When I read the incredible words of racism and hate written by some of my fellow Israelis, the cries of Joy when Palestinian children are killed, the contempt for human life!! …The fact that we share the same passport and religion means nothing to me. I want nothing to do with these people.
Likewise, the extremists on the other side are my bitter enemies as well. But their wrath is directed not only against me but against the moderates in their own society….thus making us all brothers in arms!

Earlier this month, Gideon Levy, a columnist and editorial board member for the Israeli paper Haaretz, and a much-recognized human rights advocate, published an essay entitled “Israel Doesn’t Want Peace.” It set off a fiery debate, so personalized that his paper assigned Levy bodyguards.

As an Israeli, a peace advocate, and a longtime observer of politics in the region, I respect Levy. The first two lines of his essay are “Israel does not want peace. There is nothing I have ever written that I would be happier to be proved wrong about.” When he appeared on Democracy Now! to talk about it, I was moved by the evident pain he felt at the necessity of rebuking those closest to him. Over and over again, he said things like this: “I wish I wouldn’t write those harsh things, but look at reality….”

He ended by calling for international intervention – first and foremost, from the U.S. – instead of the approval our own government has so far supplied. (For example, on July 17, Senator Lindsay Graham and 79 cosponsors passed a bill “Expressing the sense of the Senate regarding United States support for the State of Israel as it defends itself against unprovoked rocket attacks from the Hamas terrorist organization.”)

I am one of those who believe that the only way to get out of this vicious circle is by international intervention, because Israel will not change by itself. And the only way is also by making Israel pay a price for the crimes of the occupation. And for this, there must be a wake-up call for the international community, which is rather passive – and especially so, the American administration, the administration of the United States, who could do – who could have done so much more and is doing so little, so little. So any kind of step toward this direction, hopefully, will be a wake-up call for Israel, first of all, and for the international community.

Henry Siegman, the former national director of the American Jewish Congress, agrees, addressing his plea to President Obama:

And if the president wishes to convince Israelis and Palestinians that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a cause worth taking risks for, should he not be willing to take some domestic political risks as well?

Does the United States want peace? Or do our own cynical and short-sighted geopolitics control us? I can only quote that great peace advocate, Dorothy Day: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” The U.S. supplies more than a quarter of all arms exported around the world, including those whose use is so widely condemned. I want us to be judged on the side of peace, but like Gideon Levy, I have doubts about my government, and “There is nothing I have ever written that I would be happier to be proved wrong about.”

When symbolic battles rage – and what could be more purely symbolic than a contest of Facebook postings? – I am on the lookout for three tactics.

First, in any longstanding debate, people enlist history on their side. It is good to know history, and I appreciate some of the accounts of Israel-Palestine I’ve read, such as this summary making the rounds.

But there isn’t the remotest chance that anything that can be accomplished in the present will set right the numerous wrongs of history. If there were, then the patch of ground I’m standing on and just about everything else you and I can see from our vantage points in the U.S. would be returned to the native peoples forcibly evicted, murdered, imprisoned when European settlers asserted their entitlement to pursue life, liberty, and happiness here. If staking a prior claim is the key to justice (clearly it’s never been the key to peace, as Gideon Levy points out), a few billion people around the planet need to shove over, making way for those we’ve displaced.

Second, in any highly contested debate, people try to reduce the question to something graspable and binary, forcing a Hobson’s choice. The most powerful interests usually set the narrowest timeframe, because that’s the easiest way to win an argument. There isn’t a nation on earth that would refrain from firing back at a rocket launched into its territory with the intent to harm. There may be a deeply held sense of morality behind the expectation that Israel or Palestine should do that, but if we’re talking about actual existing human beings, it is simply nuts. Whenever someone succeeds in narrowing the debate to such a question, it becomes effectively moot. Extend the frame a little more and things only get a little bit closer to reality: who should have proposed or accepted ceasefire, and under what conditions? Almost the entire international public debate is conducted within such impossible boundary conditions, as if driven by the fantasy that peace will come when someone wins an argument.

Third, symbolic battles, such as Facebook combat, almost always engage essentialist ideas that come back to bite combatants on the butt. Watch me enlist history to make my point (at least I’m using it to oppose essentialism): Saul of Tarsus (whom Christians know as the Apostle Paul and whose thoughts on women in his second epistle – now disputed – are considered the proof-text for denying priesthood to women) liked to quote from Philippians 4:7, a text that seeks to sooth anxiety with “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.”

Not long after Saul’s death, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in retaliation for the Jews’ revolt against Roman authority, the first great blood-letting of the century that established Christianity as a separate religion rather than an offshoot of Judaism. In every era of history, it seems, those who have been conquered learn something they find useful in future conquests. Run your eyes over a list of the major religious wars in the last thousand years and you find that Christianity is a key force, beginning with the Crusades (estimated 1-3 million deaths, the equivalent of more than 50 million today). Add in the worldwide missionary-driven disease, forced labor, forced conversion, and torture of native people who stood in the way of colonization, and Tacitus’ characterization of the Roman Empire seems an understatement when transposed to this context: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Righteous Christians have long since repented of these crimes, offering countless good works in redemption and often entering into a sincere ecumenicism intended to stanch the wounds of history. I don’t for a minute think such bloodshed expresses an essential quality of Christianity – or any other religion. I think it speaks instead of ideology, in the sense of loyalty to ideas – including ideas of one’s own superiority – at the cost of compassion. I think it speaks to nationalism and its companion imperialism, in which a people identifies with something – land, blood, language – that overwhelms the freedom of others, making them dismissible damage in a self-aggrandizing mission with ambitions that swell as they are fed.

So why mention them now? Because I want to point out that in all the actions of all the nations that identify with a religion, either formally (as do the UK and Italy with their official churches) or informally (the Constitution notwithstanding, given the volume and frequency of right-wing insistence that the U.S. is “a Christian Nation” – not to mention the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – qualifies us here), I have seen no account of demonstrators shouting “Christians, Christian, cowardly pig!” as Germans did to Jews last week. All kinds of hairs can be split here, but this much is true: some groups of people are villified such that the reprehensible acts of any are denounced as a reflection on all – Jews and Muslims, certainly – while other groups are immunized by their power.

Honestly, I have no illusions about my own influence on the tenor of Facebook wars. I’m going to post a link to this blog on Facebook, after all. Nor do I imagine myself to be immune from future volleys for the things I have said here and those I didn’t say, the citations I didn’t make and those I did. I will almost certainly be condemned by some for daring to comment at all. It’s just that I can’t abandon the hope that a culture of peace can be created, and that it can be built on a foundation of self-awareness at least as unblinking as our awareness of the misdeeds of others.

That’s why I exhort my own country, the United States, to become a force for justice, love, and peace, to take the risks that an open-eyed awareness of our own role in the world must require. Without it, how will a culture of peace be possible?

“Alem” by the Malian musician Vieux Farka Toure and Israeli musician Idan Raichel, the Toure-Raichel Collective.

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