Thursday, November 15, 2012

Appointment In Samarra

As the Middle East smoulders, again, I reread a post I published on DailyKos, in July 2006.  Then, "Lil' Boots" Bush and President Cheney were still riding roughshod over the rest of the world; the price of single-family homes had just peaked; Goldman-Sachs was selling mortgage-backed securities they knew were worthless, and America's economy was poised on the brink.

Another clash between the Israeli government and Palestinians in the Gaza strip, but most visibly in southern Lebanon, was going on then and also looked poised to spark a wider conflict. Watching it unfold then, and watching it now, is a heartbreak. And this time, six years later, so much of the dynamic is the same.

But this time, the potential for a regional war is greater. In 2006, the 'Arab Spring' was just a dream, and the Syrian leadership hadn't yet started to build a reactor in the middle of nowhere. "Lil' Boots" was still 'The Decider' and there was still a possibility that -- even with the obvious unforced errors of war in Iraq and an ignored war in Afghanistan -- America would double-down and take on the Iranians.

Now, there is civil war in Syria; the 'Arab Spring' removed Mubarrak and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood leads Egypt's government. The Shiite - Sunni war over who is the dominant faction in Islam and the Arab world continues. Meanwhile, the (non-Arabic) Iranians want to become the dominant Middle East Islamic nation, and apparently intend to continue developing their capability to manufacture nuclear weapons -- against a backdrop of cyberwarfare, targeted assassinations of Iranian physicists, and continuing threats to 'wipe' Israel off the map by Iran's leaders. This time, things are different. 

It should be clear from the outset that I have a bias in favor of the State of Israel (what its governments may do, not so much), and that I am no fan, whatsoever, of Hamas. At the same time, I'm a human being -- and it was from that perspective that I wrote the post. What I said then still rings true, for me, and particularly now.



In another blog posting this morning, there was occasional language which suggested that the Israelis were behaving like nazis in Gaza and Lebanon -- and equal responses that even hinting at these comparisons was anti-Semitic.

I could see what I assumed was being said, on both sides, but it reminded me of demonstrations at various Israeli consulates in the United States this week -- usually two opposing crowds, a sea of Palestinian flags on one side, the blue-and-white of Israel on the other, each separated by the dark blue of police uniforms -- and dull grey of steel barriers, hastily set up. At the demonstration I witnessed, there was no overt violence -- but the atmosphere between the two sides was explosive, ugly and unreasoning in the extreme. There was an ocean of gasoline between them, searching for a flame.

Reading the blog postings and responses -- and they've been on almost every blog discussing the events in Israel and Palestine, and now Lebanon -- I remembered that one casualty of the nazi's rise between 1933 and 1945, was the use of critical language. The nazis repeatedly used specific turns of phrase, keywords, to begin the semantic transformation of the Jews of Germany (and later Europe) into things, not persons -- which would make ordering physical action against them later more simple.

People in Europe and America understand these same phrases, having heard them in documentaries and other media about the nazi era; there are enough Europeans alive (including some of my relatives) who can remember hearing them when they were actually in use. And because of the connections to the Holocaust, no one with any sensibility would contemplate comparing the government of Israel, or Israelis, over their relations with and treatment of Palestinians with the nazis.

The nazi regime practiced genocide -- the international legal definition of which is found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. You can debate that, but under either article, I don't believe the actions of Israel's government to be genocidal -- reprehensible, frequently inhumane, potential human rights violations, and limiting and ghettoizing the Palestinians; but (again, you can argue the point) they aren't attempting to eliminate Palestinian art, music, or anything else which could be claimed as an expression of a regional culture; and the Israeli government isn't herding the Palestinians into gas chambers on a timetable with the intent of exterminating every single one of them, as a people, forever.

And in using or reacting to criticisim of Israeli actions in language that sounds even remotely like nazi propaganda, it might be helpful to remember that Israel is the one place on the planet where a Jew can be a Jew, without wondering when the next pogrom will occur, and that there are real-world reasons why that is so. The Holocaust is the worst example, but that means there are others.

But, Israel is also a nation-state, with a government that adopts specific policies and takes specific actions. There is a legitimate complaint on the part of the Palestinians over questions of land and soverignty, which if it is a responsible nation, Israel's government is supposed to consider and negotiate in fairness. People can be free to criticize decisions or actions of the government of Israel, but not to abscribe those actions to all Jews. It isn't accurate, any more than saying about the Iraqis or Palestinians, or Syrians, or Lebanese, or Saudis, or Kuwaitis, or the OAE, or Iranians or Pakistanis -- 'Oh, you know how all the Arabs are; they're a bunch of tribal children; they're all thieves; and they'd kill every last Jew in the world if they had the chance."

That there is animosity, on the level of a blood feud between specific groups of Arabs and Jews, is beyond question -- but even so, that comment isn't accurate, either.

And, remember -- the United States is also a nation-state with a government, carrying out policies which under U.S. and international law may be determined unconstitutional and war crimes; which polls indicate few of our citizens want or support. As individual citizens, the distinction that "our 'government' is not acting in my name" is nearly the last refuge we have in any discussion of what that government continues to do. And there are Israelis who feel similarly about their own.


All this triggered a whole series of memories around how I know what I know of European history, and what the nazis did there over the twelve years of their rule. In part, we're sensitive to anti-Semitic language -- to language that denigrates anyone on the basis of race, or religion, or even food choice -- through studies about the Holocaust which are (fortunately) now a part of scholastic cirriculums.

The context of the teaching is not that the Holocaust was only a crime against the Jewish people (it was), but a stain and a crime against all of humanity. In order to prevent its repetition, for any people, you have to study genocide's most obvious and monstrous example --  because, sometimes, social responsibility has to be learned. And empathy.

What I took away from my own education was that even the Holocaust could give birth to a hopeful paradigim -- if people can recognize, and empathize with the suffering, the pain and fear of others, their response to that as individuals, and hopefully as governments, would come in action and not apathy. If people could learn to respond to that internal connection, we might begin to unlearn some of the supported beliefs around violence, hatred, and revenge that marks almost every corner of the planet to one degree or another.

(Someone may say, Oh, we know so much about the Holocaust because Jewish, and Zionist, organizations have promoted it as an act of manipulating guilt. I reject that; it's an argument David Irving might raise --  but whatever your heritage or religion or race, if your people had experienced an almost universal persecution, over thousands of years, wouldn't you sieze the opportunity in turning an unthinkable human tragedy into a teaching lesson, for everyone, and to insure you could live without fear, handed down across generations like a dark heirloom, of being discriminated against, robbed, and murdered? I would. And so would you.)

Considering this and what is unfolding in the Middle East didn't stop there, for me, and the events of the past two weeks made me think seriously about the United States and Israel, about the Palestinians; about Iraq, the Sunni and Shiites; and Iran, which appears more and more to be the next target of a dangerous, and (in my opinion) criminally malevolent government [Note: That reference, at the time this was written, was to the Bush administration.].

One of my memories as a boy is looking at a photograph in a book about the Second World War: A seven- or eight-year-old boy, part of a group of Jews being rounded up for transport, wearing a flat cap, knee pants and a coat with a Star of David sewn on it, his hands raised; in the background is an SS sargeant with a machine pistol.

I reread the book a number of times, and always paused over that picture to focus on the boy's face. The uncertainty, the fear, is obvious; his looking away from the photographer (probably wearing an SS uniform themselves); you can read the question in his expression: Where are we going? What is happening to me? Why are you doing this to us? The group he was with were being rounded up for Auschwitz, and in the selection on the loading ramp after arrival, his chances for survival were slim and none.

Later, I learned that the photograph had been used to positively identify the SS sargeant with the MP-40 standing in the background, and to send him to prison in West Germany. At the time, I felt a momentary rush of vengeful anger, satisfaction: Good; you should've blown his brains out instead.

In retrospect -- even though I was fifteen at the time -- I was studying a relic, another grave marker, in the long history of human violence and and revenge, and I really had learned nothing.


For almost twenty years, I've watched from the safe and comfortable remove of America as the Palestinians and Israelis continue to spin in that cycle. My constant feeling has been one of discomfort -- as if I had an appointment for something, but have continually put off meeting it. Whenever the subject of Israel, the Palestinians, the Intifada, Rabin's murder, came up in conversation, I used the same language as everyone else I spoke with: Horrible. Tragic. I just don't understand what's going on. Then I, or someone else, would change the subject.

After September 11th, and when the Iraq war began, it was natural, and easy, to focus on America's actions, our invasion; on the decisions of our sainted leaders. But that was still a comfortable remove -- especially in the bloody years after the invasion of Iraq, the continuing agony in Gaza and the West Bank, the suicide bombings in Israel -- and I knew intellectually what horror I was witnessing, but some voice in my mind kept repeating, they can't stop themselves; what can anyone do? What can I do?

Over the past year or so, I'd seen two photographs, from Israel and Palestine, on news websites which made me pause to study them. In the past several weeks, I've remembered them, held them side by side in my mind. They became, for me, a hand tugging at my coat, at my sleeve, from the level a child could reach. Something wants my attention, and I can't shake it off.

One photo showed a Palestinian boy of ten or twelve, dressed in dirty jeans and a torn green T-Shirt, his body swung in a classic pose as if he had just thrown a discus; he had just thrown a rock at an Israeli armored vehicle in Gaza. His expression seemed an utter abandonment to an anger and defiance that comes from the worst despair, part of the bottom of the human barrel of experience -- your rage is so all-encompassing, in that moment, you're willing to throw stones at a tank. For that instant, you don't care what happens to you because things are that bad.

Not a circumstance many Americans can identify with.

The other photograph was almost nondescript, except for its context: A middle-aged Israeli couple, standing at the side of the grave of their teenaged daughter, killed by a suicide bomber while out on a date. It may have been the speed of a camera shutter capturing a single moment, but they weren't yet wailing or gesturing; only standing quietly, the man's arm around his wife's shoulders. It was all in looking closely at their faces.

To me, the immensity of their grief was palpable; it jumped off the screen; and in that captured instant was so reined in, internalized, you knew how inexpressible their wound was. It was a sealed room they would carry with them for the rest of their lives. It was a depth of loss that separated them from the 'ordinary' world as if part of them would always be adrift on an ocean, never reaching any safe harbor again.

Both photographs, and other images that have come out of entire Middle East, made me look at them in the same way I'd studied the black-and-white photo of the European boy, years ago. And then I understood that my appointment with what all of these images represented couldn't be put off any longer. And it didn't only deal with the Middle East.

In all of my considering about the Holocaust, what part it played in teaching me about my own relation to human tragedy, is one of the roots of my response to the cycle of violence and revenge in the Middle East.  What I took away from that part of European history was some idea of the depth of pain and misery we can inflict on each other, for reasons that are so worthless, so ignorantly divisive, that it still makes me feel ashamed, injured as a human being that any of my own species were responsible for it.

It taught me that any violence, any oppression against others, anywhere, should be resisted before it became something as dark as the organized murder of the Camps -- because the permission to commit mass murder for a belief was dragged into this world by the nazis, and could reappear. (And it has. Ask Cambodians of a certain age about Pol Pot. Ask the Muslims who were "ethnically cleansed" in what was once Jugoslavia. Ask almost any Rwandan.)

For me, the Holocaust was a lesson for all people, not just Europeans, or Arabs, or Chinese. It was a teaching story as  much as any written by Nasrudeen or Confucius, one that applies equally to any people, any culture. And in part it informs my response to what is happening in the Middle East;  and that is this:

It has to stop. It has to end. The way to interrupt a cycle of violence and revenge is to stop.

It's an act of sincerity, of hope in the face of what all rhetoric and what passes for reason says is wrong. But the time for only speech to stop violence is past. Someone needs to step forward, put their gun on the ground, and say, I do this even if I feel it isn't what I should do -- because all of this has to stop.

I'm aware of how this sounds, to some. It's simplistic and naive, more emotional and unsophisticated one-world nonsense. But I would argue that at this moment, we are beyond sophistication and rhetoric. There is a point at which the amount of death and misery no longer matters; a point where it's no longer important whom to blame -- only that it ends. And that point has been passed.

The circumstances in the entire Middle East at this moment have the potential to become a wider war in the blink of an eye. Some may see it as an opportunity to take on all Arabic governments or groups perceived as hostile to the United States and force them, somehow, to surrender; others may see it as an opportunity to unite the Arabic and Islamic world as never before against a hostile and imperialist West. Both of these perspectives are insane.

Would either side trade the life of any child for some goal, some belief they claim is more important than life? Go, look into that child's eyes. Look hard. Look at the expression written there: Where are you taking us? Why are you doing this? What will happen to me?

Will you tell them, when you put your pistol to their head, that it's for a greater good, for the glory of a faith; because your brother or sister, or your parent or cousins, were killed and revenge demands that now their life has to end?

Some are saying yes, to that. Some say their beliefs are worth taking any life, even a child's. That the lives of others, because they have different faiths, are worth less than their own. Because death demands more death.

People like this leave me stunned, with an honest wonder, at whether we will survive as a species. Anyone who thinks that a belief or a side in an argument, or a religion, is the basis for killing a single human being is wrong.

There will be time enough for talk; it will be critical, unavoidable. But in the moment a choice is made for the violence to stop, it doesn't matter which side is wrong, more brutal, or who has the right to what land, who killed more of whose people; which religion is the more correct, or who stands on more of a moral high ground so as to shoot down on the Other.

It doesn't matter who actually takes the first step -- only that someone does. And it may not be a government or a side who takes that step; it may be one person, in one place and time who says None of this is right. I refuse to participate. I stand up as a single human being and say no

Because this is what it comes down to. This is the appointment every single human being has: With our own consciences, with a real and wider world -- with the choice to save the child, or shoot them and by so doing proclaim that beliefs are worth more than life. And nearly as a species, we've deferred that appointment for so long that it's a time which is coming to find us.

If we continue to refuse to face up to our responsibility, refuse to recognize we are parts of a community of human beings -- if we walk away from the child's hand we feel tugging at our sleeves, we may not have many more opportunities.  And when real trouble comes -- even for all of us -- by then, it may be too late.


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